Using Design Thinking to tackle issues of recruitment, retention and return in the profession

The RCVS organised a summit in London on 30 November 2021 to address ongoing concerns over staffing shortages within the veterinary professions and explore innovative ways to respond to the issue.

Why the urgency for a Summit?

Workforce pressures are not a new phenomenon in the professions. Trends towards more people working part-time and fewer practices covering their own out-of-hours work have been happening for several years.

However, recent challenges such as Brexit and Covid-19 have significantly added to pressures on the profession. They have significantly contributed to the reduction in vet numbers where previously there had been a steadily growing supply of registered vets from the EU, while at the same time the profession has seen an increase in demand for vet services, caused by a surge in UK pet ownership.

Preparation for the event

The RCVS was determined to provide Summit delegates with comprehensive and up-to-date data on recruitment and retention from a wide range of sources. It commissioned a series of independently run online focus groups, where veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and practice managers could share their views and experiences around topics of recruitment, retention and return to work. The RCVS also published two reports, capturing the latest trends in workforce recruitment and retention for vets and vet nurses.

Invitations to the summit were sent to key stakeholders, including governmental bodies, representative bodies, vet schools and veterinary employers.

A design thinking agenda

The programme for the event incorporated the structure of Design Thinking – a methodology built as a creative, problem-solving process underpinned by engagement, collaboration and encouraging innovation. This technique has been used successfully by ViVet – RCVS’s wide-ranging innovation programme that supports veterinary professionals.

RCVS CEO Lizzie Lockett
Chris Tufnell

The morning session began with introductions from RCVS CEO Lizzie Lockett and Vivet’s Innovation Lead, Chris Tufnell, who highlighted the importance of the Summit, and encouraged delegates to be open and honest, and innovative in their thinking.

Delegates were then given summary presentations of the pre-event research, followed by ‘warm-up’ exercises to help leave traditional attitudes and preconceptions at the door and get the creative juices flowing!

Materials were then provided which outlined the top six workforce issue themes that had emerged from the recent research work, including key challenges faced and actual quotes from focus group contributors. Delegates were divided into small groups, with different roles represented in each group. Two teams were paired to each theme but working independently on a different aspect of the issue. Each group was challenged to respond to a ‘How Might We…? statement such as “How might we structure this to improve….” or “How might we better manage the use of….”.

This ‘definition’ technique is a core part of Design Thinking and helped the groups to consider the issue as an opportunity, and to explore it in a positive and innovative way.

The groups then captured their thoughts on flipcharts and began the ‘Ideation’ step of Design Thinking – exploring ideas for possible solutions using some of the creative thinking tips provided earlier in the day.

Breakout group using a flipchart presentation

The layout of the workspace had been chosen to enable all teams to work in a single large area to generate a buzz and energy in the room while allowing each group to have sufficient space to work independently.

Ideas that were seen as having wide potential were grouped into a list, while so-called ‘smaller ideas’ were captured separately so that they were not lost and could still be considered in the future. There was even a ‘doggy bag’ (!) collection of sometimes random thoughts that could be taken home by individuals if they felt they could spark ideas with other colleagues in their organisation.


Paired teams then presented to each other and chose which ideas they wanted to progress further in the afternoon session. Some ideas were combined from across the two groups – a collaborative approach that was taken further as the two teams merged into one, using a provided template to structure their preferred ideas. This helped to develop a more balanced assessment of what the idea could achieve, as well as enabling a common way of working across all twelve teams in the room.

Paired team presenting

Sharing for feedback

The final session of the Summit brought all six combined groups back together, to each present their progress in turn. Each group took it in turns to summarise how they addressed the problem, and highlighting their set of ideas for improvement.

After each presentation, all delegates were asked for feedback using the digital polling platform, Slido. This scored the group’s idea(s) against a series of statements, including impact on stakeholders, and potential speed of implementation. The results were shared instantly with the audience on a large display screen, , while also capturing the assessments digitally so that the ideas can be developed after the Summit.

Presenter giving ideas for improvement

The Summit ended with final remarks from Dr Kate Richards, RCVS President, expressing thanks for the work from delegates through the day, as well as the efforts of RCVS colleagues for convening the session safely as an in-person event taking place during challenging times.

Next steps

The Workforce Summit was an ambitious undertaking, seeking to bring a diverse set of stakeholders together to tackle the multi-threaded issue of recruitment, retention and return to work within the veterinary profession. The structure of Design Thinking combined with the commitment and enthusiasm of the delegates on the day, enabled the Summit to cover a huge amount of ground in a single day.

The ideas generated were a tremendous start, but as the Design Thinking process highlights, there is still more work needed to refine the ideas, add to them and develop prototypes that can be tested in a real-world environment to assess their impact.

This is what the RCVS aims to do as a next step and work has already been done to draw up an Action Plan to bring this forward, including making further opportunities for members of the professions to engage with the process.


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