News and Comment

Systems leadership – are we any closer to knowing what it is?

Monday 30 September 2013


I went to a wonderful overnight event last week, as a ‘systems leadership enabler’ (I didn’t know that was what I am, but it seems to fit!) The LGA, NHS and a range of professional and educational bodies are jointly funding an exciting project called “System Leadership – Local Vision” to support ‘systems leadership’ in a number of pilots across England. This is not just about fancy process or lots of diagrams, the aim is to achieve real improvements in outcomes.

This was the first time the ‘enablers’ – many of us colleagues with experience from Total Place – came together to compare notes.  We are a highly experienced group, and have built on learning from Total Place but it was clear that in exploring how to make complex systems work – we are all working at the edge of our knowledge and experience – developing a new sort of practice to meet new circumstances – and creating theory and interventions together. It feels a bit like team coaching felt a few years ago – we know its right, and we know it is making a difference, but it’s hard to pin down what exactly is involved.

In the first place, given the swirling, interlocking agencies, partnerships and levels – it can be quite hard to work out what is the ‘system’ we are being asked to work with. There is no single, or simple ‘client’ – and often it turns out that the people in the room in the first instance are not necessarily the people who need to come together – and that the issue we are first asked to work with is not necessarily the most important issue. The work emerges over time. It reinforces the problems with conventional ‘procurement’ when trying to support big system change – because success relies on trust that an experienced consultant will work honestly to find the right place to intervene – and on the consultant having the ability to listen hard, and attend carefully without carrying too many assumptions – so that we work effectively on what really matters.

That thought –‘what really matters’ is what is driving the work. Busy, over-stretched leaders will not devote proper time to think and act in new ways about something they don’t care about. If system change is to be possible – then it is about finding the outcome that matters so much that leaders will commit enough energy to overcome the discomfort and difficulties of making the change.

Colleagues talked a lot about relationships – making them real, bringing leaders together to talk and think openly – so that they learn to understand each other, see the dilemmas that each other face, give and take. No system change is going to be all fair weather.  Leadership will never come from a single person – instead there will be a network of key people, who need to develop relationships strong enough to weather the difficulties.

We talked about ‘helping the system see itself’ – enabling every leader to see what others can see, rather than their own narrow perspective – so that there is a collective space in which to understand how different agencies may be seeking conflicting results, or different boards may be at cross-purposes.

I came away thinking that our most successful interventions seem to be around  creating a ‘leadership network’ – a group of leaders who agree on what they are trying to do, and can work together in a range of different settings in order to make change happen. These leaders may include politicians, community leaders, doctors and local authority executives. And while its important to make formal structures and process effective – the most important stage in system change is to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ – a group of people who share a purpose and will work with all their heart to achieve it. Hopefully, in the places where I and my colleagues are experimenting over the next year, we’ll be able to show that it works.