Almost two years ago I catalogued the things I would do differently as a provider on my NDIS journey, if I could turn back the clock and have my time again. This could have been subtitled “mistakes I’ve made in the last three years”, but one of the most exciting things about the NDIS is that it’s so new that mistakes turn into lessons and ideas for change so quickly that they don’t hangover as mistakes for long. A growth mindset, rather than a mindset fixed on certainty and assurances, is one of the strongest indicators I’ve seen of which providers are making a success of the New World.
If a week is a long time in politics, two years is an eternity in the NDIS. Two years on, some of the things I highlighted remain. Others I’m less sure about after seeing the great and not-so-great changes that have happened in the sector since.
These are the things I wish I would have known two years ago:
Sunk Costs and Loss Aversion
Money, time, stress, love and sweat is going to be sunk into lots of different ideas. Some will work, some won’t. If you’re trying new things, you’re already past the ‘fear of failure’ stage which is a huge win in such a volatile sector. So it’s ok to say “we tried this, it didn’t work, let’s not spend another $50,000 trying to force it”. If I had my time again, I would compel myself to be hyper-aware of how much I’m spinning my wheels with the same things just because I don’t want to let something go, when the smart, long-term decision for Participants and the organisation is to cut my losses and move on.
Talking to the people in purple
Two years ago (let alone three, four or five years ago), when you talked to the NDIA then there was a definite feeling that nobody was listening…or if they were listening, they weren’t very interested. An enquiry or issue would make it’s way to the mystical land of ‘I’ll Escalate That’, never to be seen again. The changes the Agency has made to their personnel and processes has changed that. Once, someone from the NDIA even rang me! The fact the Agency engaged McKinsey to do the Independent Pricing Review, and took on the results, was a huge leap forward. LACs are (in theory, and often in practice) much more accessible than public servants in a capital city that may or may not be near you. If I had my time again, I would do whatever it took to find the mental reserves to persevere with a dialogue with the NDIA.
Spread the risk without selling out
Two years ago I talked about not spreading myself too thin, yet also being able to say no to services that I didn’t think I could do a good job delivering. The flip side of that is: it’s very easy to end up with a lot of eggs in relatively few baskets. One change to the rules (or even one Plan Manager changing their interpretation of the rules) put us in strife. As Providers and the sector matures, everyone is finding their way closer to that perfect balance: specific enough that we can specialise, but general enough that we aren’t riskily dependant. It’s not selling out to look at what else we can apply our skills to, it’s only a poor decision if we pick something that we aren’t very good at. If I had my time again, I would spend more time looking at options for diversification…but not at the expense of my core services.
Look outside the sector
In the early days of rollout, the Agency talked lots about the involvement of the wider Australian business community in delivery of services. That utopia hasn’t really come to fruition, but there are more organisations from outside the sector coming to join us with specific sets of skills or experiences. I’m seeing more and more accounting firms coming into the NDIS marketplace to do Plan Management, and I’ve loved working with them. They know their niche function inside-out, and working with them progresses one of the side aims of the NDIS to involve more of Australia in the support of people with disabilities. I suspect I am not alone in the sector in suspiciously judging people and Providers from outside the traditional disability sector. But if I had my time again, I would tone down my own cynicism of non-sector Providers and put more time into bringing them on the journey with us.
Patience is a virtue
Year 2 and Year 3 of rollout felt like a battle every day (sometimes every hour). The Great Portal Disaster, missing Plans, mental health eligibility, Planners, Reasonable And Necessary disputes, AT quotes, arguments with other Providers over who is doing what, pricing pressures. It was never-ending, and naturally that took a lot of energy to maintain. Yet every month or so there is a landmark ruling or decision (usually from an AAT) that turbocharges everyone’s energy levels. Patience is a virtue. If I knew how positive things were going to look in 2018, I wouldn’t have burned myself out fighting every battle that I came across in 2016 and 2017. I would have taken some very different decisions about how we delivered services. If I had my time again, I would slow down and pick my battles.
Make national networks
We are closer now than ever to a truly national Scheme. The nuts-and-bolts networking and partnering will still always be done over coffee in your town / suburb, but there are so many fantastic ideas, concepts and people united under the banner of ‘being a provider’ spread across the country. There are also more ways than ever to connect with them. If I had my time again, I would get better at using Skype and pick the brains of anyone that would let me, whether they were 30km across town or 3000km across the country.
Support the small(er) guys
While there are more large and very large providers in the market now than there seemed to be two years ago, there is an absolute army of small, lean, agile, new providers out there. If we want a market with true choice for Participants, we want these smaller providers to do well. We all know it’s a jungle out there though, so partnerships that might look unbalanced in the first few months can still lead everyone to a great outcome in the future. I know I would rather partner with five smaller providers that know my name and understand my organisation, rather than two bigger ones who see me as just a number on a spreadsheet. If I had my time again, I’d put more time into working with smaller Providers with an eye on the long term.
Changing IT systems will cause bigger problems than it solves
I've met only a handful of people in the sector who like talking or thinking about the IT systems. In fact, in the last seven years, I've found that IT systems have actually become a very convenient scapegoat for everything else that is going not-so-well. It's very rare that a system is so broken that it's what is actually holding us back: it may be our use of it, or the way it aligns (or doesn't) with our vision and values, it might be the way different systems interact, it may be the people we have using it. IT system change is hell, and costs an inordinate amount of money and stress. After going through three different systems in 12 months, I would be willing to bet any amount of money that the issues providers face can be much better addressed by spending time, money and energy in other areas. If I had my time again, I would accept that changing IT systems actually most often means just trading one set of deficiencies for another.
Don’t take it too seriously
We are in the people business, and the support we deliver and the advocacy battles we wage are very often a matter of life and death. Getting the NDIS right for Participants and providers is a serious business with serious goals comprising serious work. But it’s also enjoyable, diverse, emotional, joyous, rousing and funny. It’s important that we take the time to smell the roses and don’t be afraid to laugh and hug (at the appropriate time!). If I had my time again, I would pick the moments where I can be less serious and enjoy the progress we all have made.
Rob has worked in and around NDIS service providers for more than six years, and the disability sector for more than a decade. His roles in the disability sector across this time have been varied including Project & Policy Officer, Service Manager, National Projects Manager, Business Development Manager, General Manager and most recently Founder & Director of a service provider in ACT. He has experience across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and the UK in both large and small organisations, including Board roles. Rob combines hands-on experience of disability support work, an MBA and journalism qualifications, and in-depth understanding of Design Thinking, Agile Development and Lean Management.