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Get Real with Meeting Centres – One Year In!

Well, it’s 2022 already (Happy New Year!), and that means we are now half way through the Get Real research project, timeline wise. The first year appears to have gone in a flash – in fact, personally, it does feel that 2020 and 2021 almost blended into one because of the continued background of unprecedented global circumstances due to the pandemic – ongoing uncertainty, long periods of time spent with social restrictions, lots of working from home, and rather limited opportunities for time-marking events or a proper change of scenery. In terms of the project, however, a lot has indeed happened, and our year one report has now gone off to our NIHR funders. So it’s a time to take stock and look at what we’ve done and have still yet to do, if not for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, then for the sake of the old Gantt chart… that is for reflective learning and forward planning!

The Old Gantt Chart

For those not familiar with them, Gantt charts are a kind of calendar tool used in project planning to plan out when everything should happen and how long everything should take. They look like this:

I have a hot and cold relationship with them. On the one hand they are invaluable: At the start of the project as a tool to think through everything that needs to be done, if it’s feasible in the time and how it will all fit together; and during the project as a basic way to keep tabs on whether things are on track, and that nothing has been forgotten. On the other hand I always feel a bit like there is an uncomfortable amount of guesswork involved in drawing one up, which can come back to bite you later on when that guesswork proves to have been off. The Realist researcher in me knows, even as I draft it, that many things aren’t going to play out like I think they are (that is one of the key cornerstones of the Realist worldview – that there is always a significant gap between the pristine plan and the complex, messy reality, and instead of trying to downplay this, that’s where the interesting stuff happens that we can learn about how things really work from).

So how useful/accurate has our Gantt proved to be one year in? The answer really is: Only partially accurate but very useful indeed. You do have to take it with a pinch of salt, as things have unfolded in a way that was impossible to foresee, not least given the pandemic, which has made it a little a harder to set up meetings and interviews etc (and in some cases simply unwise to do so unless strictly necessary). What is most important is NOT that everything is exactly as planned on the Gantt; rather it’s that where things have turned out significantly different you know WHY this is the case, and either you can justify that the deviation doesn’t significantly impact anything important or that you have an alternative plan of action for how and when you are going to get things done instead. It makes you account for yourself and continue to reflect carefully on what it is you are doing and why.

The Best Laid Plans (yes, another Robert Burns paraphrase!)

So how are things looking? Overall the project is broadly on track, with a few notable exceptions. The planning phase – getting everything and everyone in place, developing our research materials etc – I think took longer than we anticipated, in part due to the detail and complexity required to gain external ethical approval, as outlined in my previous post here. The second half of 2021, however, was all about data gathering – in particular interviews and group discussions with people involved at all levels at our three Meeting Centre case study sites – from those attending, to those friends and family supporting them, to Meeting Centre staff and volunteers, to those overseeing the governance and planning of each.

These interviews and discussions largely rolled on nicely, but there have been some challenges in getting to talk to some people in certain roles at certain sites. For example, due to the pandemic one Meeting Centre site had reduced membership numbers and reduced involvement from friends and family on top of that; another was not able to physically re-open until October/November 2021 due to venue restrictions out of their control. There is a lot you can do via Zoom (other online meeting platforms are available), but we felt for certain people we really had to conduct interviews and group discussions face-to-face to get the best results, so wanted to wait until we could. No sooner had this site re-opened, however, than the Omicron variant reared its head and we thought it best to limit how much we were travelling around these sites; we paused all in-person researcher visits in December. This kind of thing affected the progress of the interviews and discussions all through, sometimes in more subtle ways – scheduled meet-ups often fell through and had to be re-arranged either due to precautions, isolation or mild illness – just meaning everything took longer.

Our DCE questionnaire took much longer to develop than perhaps naively imagined at the start of project (an example of Gantt chart guesswork gone agley!). The process proved more challenging and involved than we had anticipated as it is a complex tool not often used with the audience we are targeting. It had to undergo various rounds of consultation and redesign, before finding a solution likely to work as intended – but we thought it preferable to spend some time following what our PPI consultation was telling us and getting the questionnaire right, to give it the best chance of producing valuable data, rather than rush through a version that may not have worked as well as it should. We still have plenty of time to roll it out and gather out data in the first half of 2022.

Taking Stock (not a Burns reference)

The questionnaire is now piloted and fixed and has had fresh ethical approval to be rolled out to all UK Meeting Centres, so among our first tasks this New Year will be doing that, with the aim of gathering all the data in by the summer.

With regards to the interviews and groups discussions, we now need to focus on completing the last outstanding ones with people in certain roles at each Meeting Centre case study site, and also then interviewing people external to the Meeting Centres, but supporting it (such as health and social care professionals and partners and supporters from the local community) for their view of things.

What we already have now is a lot of great, rich, valuable qualitative data in the bag. I feel I’ve got to know the complexities of the workings at each of the three Meeting Centre case study sites quite well now, thanks to the generosity of those who have agreed to let us spend time with them (in person and virtually), and the forthcoming-ness of those who have kindly agreed to be interviewed or take part in discussions.

The ultimate aim of this research is to learn from their experience – to gather together all that knowledge on the full, complex and, yes, “messy” picture of how things have worked at each Meeting Centre and what challenges remain for them. To do this we want to be able to trace what is likely to affect what – i.e., “if you do this or that, in this or that context, then this or that is likely to result, because…” I already feel like we have multiple things we can say like this for each of our Meeting Centre sites, as each has tried different things in different locations with different circumstances, and each faces unique (but potentially universally informative) challenges. Another next step for us to take in the next few months is to start a proper analysis of this qualitative data, to turn this feeling in something concrete.

Here’s to 2022.  Slàinte Mhath!

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