When The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

When The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

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“People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” 

― Edmund Hillary 


Scaling the near impossible heights of a mountain such as Everest requires courage, skill, access to innovations, technical ability, profound respect for logistics and the ability to bring together teams of the very best people in the world with complementary abilities. This, at least, was the lesson learned in 1953 when a team of Sherpas, alongside English and New Zealand climbers, and backed up by support staff successfully achieved what was, up to this point, thought of as impossible: they reached the summit of Everest. 

April 2020

“Extraordinary.” I feel like I have heard that word so many times over the last few months: the ‘extraordinary’ times we live in; ‘the extraordinary’ challenges we are facing;  the ‘extraordinary’ events with which we are confronted.  In this blog, we want to share with you an extraordinary accomplishment, some hints on how it was achieved,  and at risk of offending one of my (JG) heroes, we want to tell you about some people we think are extraordinary.  The story is still playing out, so much of the learning is ahead of us – but it is valuable to see what we can take from the story so far.

The ‘mountain’ to be climbed

The looming cost of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent during early Spring 2020, when our analysis identified a potential gap of 2000 available beds. The challenge was clear: if we did not act, we risked being overwhelmed before Spring had turned to Summer.  As our working week came to an end, we realised that we needed to effectively double the size of our multi-hospital system in just four weeks. Within hours of making the decision, we brought clinical and managerial colleagues together to identify the key requirements for any proposed solution. They identified two fundamental requirements: proximity to the existing hospitals and size, i.e. it needed to accommodate as many as 2000 patients with staff and supply lines being drawn mostly from other existing sites.  Before the end of that weekend we had selected our site and our construction partners and no more than two weeks later, the design and planning, construction and delivery of the first phase had been completed, making available 300 beds for our first patients. A process that is normally measured in years, had been accomplished in two short weeks. In two more weeks up to 1700 more beds will be ready and available for COVID 19 patients.  A 2000 bed hospital has been designed and built in the heart of Cardiff in four weeks! It has been an absolute privilege to be part of this team – achieving extraordinary things.

What is the early learning?

What can we learn from this challenge and our response so far?  At risk of embarrassing some team members I think there are eight key observations for me so far: 

  • Outstanding project and programme management -and the humility that makes Vicky so good will cause her to deny her own crucial role in that
  • Bold and incisive clinical and managerial leaders – and thanks to our Military colleagues for helping us make decisions quickly – every time
  • Rapid and wholehearted learning from others – the value of HDUHB (Libby) as mentors 2 days ahead of us, and early efforts to bring together a learning network locally and nationally
  • Volunteerism – making everybody feel welcome and acknowledging that there is always more to learn from people – peoples’ gift of their discretionary time is so powerful
  • Dropping of boundaries and old ways of doing things – the old hierarchies and territories set aside to allow a new structure to emerge
  • Absolute clarity/alignment with the mission – a mission that feels supremely important
  • keeping fear off the set (thanks to Joe McCannon for that language)
  • Getting people with frontline experience in the room – running the room!


There are things that feel impossible – and yet we have managed to make them achievable.  Like many of you we have been fortunate to be part of large scale responses to those kinds of challenges over the years. For example, patient safety, where we followed the lead of mentors such as Don Berwick, or the ever increasing health and care costs where we followed Professor Sir Muir Gray (Triple Value Health Care) and Professor Sir Mansel Aylward (Prudent Healthcare).  The next key challenges, before COVID distracted us, were the understanding of large scale change in partnership with other key leaders such as Joe McCannon and Becky Margiotta. 

I know Vicky, David, Ciaran and the rest of my esteemed colleagues will feel the same – that this has been the most challenging leadership experience in our lives – but also one of the most rewarding and satisfying. 

‘…there is something about building up a comradeship — that I still believe is the greatest of all feats — and sharing in the dangers with your company of peers.’ Sir Edmund Hillary

“You don’t have to be a hero to accomplish great things—to compete. You can just be ..ordinary…, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.” 

― Edmund Hillary, High Adventure 

About the author

Prof. Jonathon Gray has over twenty years of experience in the field of health and is an expert in healthcare improvement and innovative service development. He is the executive lead for the transformation of the largest temporary hospital in Wales; Ysbyty Calon Y Ddraig-Dragon’s Heart Hospital. Jonathon is also the Executive Director of Transformation at the Cardiff & Vale University Health Board.”

When The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

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