The Pod: how to lead like a pirate

“Some people just stand out in the sea. Like a rock with a light on top. That’s Christine.”

Change in the UK public sector is tough. Our health and education systems, and our sprawling network of local councils are complex and fractured, heavy on rules and processes passed down from on high.

But here is a story to inspire every frustrated employee who thinks that it’s not possible to create services that are responsive to human needs.

It is entirely possible. But it takes courage. If you want to know what public sector piracy looks like, read on.


In 2009 the Lamb Street Day Centre in Coventry was (to quote Greenday), ‘a boulevard of broken dreams’. It was frequented only by staff and service users - people suffering from mental illnesses; roughly 106 service users in all, over half of whom had been referred there by social services 10 years previously. If you got referred, you were there to stay. Moving on was seen as neither possible or a good idea. It was not ‘safe.’

Fast forward to 2017, and you would never believe that what they now call ‘The Pod’ is the same place. The Pod is a hub of cultural activity; an art collective, cafe, a social space. 15,000 people engage with the Pod in some way each year and they come from all over the city, all walk of life. In the words of one visitor:

“The Pod is not a service it is more like a social movement…”

The transformation is down to a woman called Christine Eade.

Christine has pioneered a new model of change in Coventry called social brokerage. The purpose of social brokerage to optimise a person’s connectivity to and inclusion in the community, taking them from service users to citizens (the citizen shift, in Sam’s pirate code 2.0). It is a recognition of what gives people’s lives meaning, that the risk involved in learning new things or forming relationships, actually supports recovery.

“Social brokerage demands emotional intelligence and ingenuity. It is not simply resource finding or signposting.”

 By January 2012 a social brokerage qualification was developed with Coventry University. Christine asserts that the transformation she’s spearheaded at the Pod, could only come about through ‘positive risk taking’.

Break and rewrite the rules

'“not because I was asked or told to do it, but because it’s what had to be done. I’d say that my job was on the line, at least once a week.”

The Department of Health’s policy on ‘Putting People First’ pushes the agenda for a personalised approach to healthcare, but is lagging behind in the mental health arena because of the reluctance to accept positive risk taking in the realm of personalised budgets and choice of activity.

Christine first looked at the silos that exist in service provision and decided to ignore them. In many local councils, ‘recovery’ - how a person might go on to live a meaningful life with or without their conditions, is dealt with by one team, while an entirely separate team looks after personalisation.

It seemed fairly obvious to Christine that recovery and personalisation should go hand in hand, and that without effective communication between support teams the results were likely to be mixed.

Time to reorganise

Instead of cutting people off inside a Day Care Centre only to be visited by disparate social workers, Christine made the Pod the centre of activity. The Pod actually manages several city wide programmes that have nothing to do with Mental Health (arts collective, food union, time union, quiet activism), so all kinds people come directly to them. Connections are made across the city; often but not exclusively with an emphasis on the arts. Christine recognises that artists are natural risk takers and has recruited many to work alongside citizens of the Pod. In her own words “…to respect and reflect people’s aspirations.” In this way people stop feeling marginalised and start feeling like creative human beings. Citizens of a vibrant city.

A Development Worker commented:

“Change happens when we both take positive risks. The ‘push and pull’ of the debate, can take Citizens’ lives to unexpected and exciting places”.

Redistribute the power

Christine also has a keen sense of power imbalance. Her service user to citizen model is all about giving people their agency and encouraging them to move on. When people are first referred to the Pod, they meet there, but in the second meeting they choose a location of their own choice. They are never bound to the Pod.

The ultimate goal is to help people to move on to fully independent lives. When Christine first arrived on the scene many people  had been attending the day centre for years. One person thought it was for ‘around three years’ when it was actually seven! In response to that time unwittingly lost, the Pod introduced a Pass Card to give people confidence about moving on. The Pass Card offered a fixed number of one hour sessions with a development worker after leaving the service, without the need to be re-referred by a Care Co-ordinator. No-one has ever used all the slots on their card.

Soon the Pod will move to new headquarters in FarGo, Coventry’s new Creative Quarter, which feels appropriate since they have contributed significantly to the cultural capital of the city and are continually challenging national assumptions about what social care can and should look like.

Embrace flawed leadership

The Pod represents a new model of social care, one that focuses on critical connections, a shift to citizenship and agency. But underneath that there is a leadership model; a way of being that allows you to embrace the ‘chaos’ of positive risk breaking. Here’s is Christine’s advice:

 • Don’t be frightened of disagreement

• Be prepared for difficult conversations

• Push and provoke

• Ask the difficult question. And then keep asking it.

• Enable citizen’s rights

• Look for the mutual gain

• Be brave

• Test it and build on it

• Be pragmatic

• Do stuff

“It’s not about conforming and not about having answers – it has to be about outcomes not outputs. If you are truly innovating you won’t know all the answers. If you know the answers, it’s not innovation – innovation is about positive risk taking”. 

From Christine to Captain Flint: in the darkness, there is discovery, possibility, freedom.

Pirate through and through.   

Christine recently presented the Pod as a case study for innovation in front of fifty senior leaders from across healthcare. She was held up as an example of success by Duncan Selbie the Chief Executive of Public Health England.

Add something about awards

So next time you’re told that you can’t do this or that, or are worried that the risks won’t pay off, execute your doubts like the traitors they are and remember, courage calls to courage everywhere. Everyone knows that we need new methods, we just have to brave enough to do it.