News and Comment

Systems Leadership – what is it, do we need it, how do we do it?

Tuesday 21 January 2014


OPM hosted a great breakfast seminar last week on Systems Leadership – made even better because the guest speakers were two lovely people for whom I have huge amounts of respect – Deborah McKenzie and John Atkinson. John Atkinson gave the best ‘theory’ lecture on systems leadership that I think I’ve heard – succinct, powerful and compelling. John was the energy behind Total Place, and his shaping of the learning from the experience helped to drive Whole Place, Community Budgets and now the Local Vision – Systems Leadership project.

Deborah McKenzie is head of OD at Public Health England, and with others has skillfully connected up a network of organisations across health and local government including the leadership academies – a feat of systems leadership in itself! This ‘leadership network’ is supporting experiments in systems leadership and Deborah talked about how real leadership development happens through ‘doing’ – working collaboratively on a project that really matters to people – and raised some fascinating questions about where we go from here. I’m working as an enabler in two of these experiments and know just how powerful the learning is.   For example, in highly complex systems, we are learning the importance of human beings over machines – sharing values, and creating a sense of shared endeavor that can overcome short-term obstacles. Leadership in systems is about building belief, hope and courage. If the things we are trying to achieve are really meaningful, and matter to people, then we can draw on people’s hearts and souls as well as their brains – and that’s much more powerful.

We are learning a lot about the importance of connecting people to each other – not through consultation meetings but by engaging more and more people in the practical work of creating alternatives. Changing assumptions and mind-sets only ever happens in the ‘real work’ clash of perspectives when we begin to see things differently. John Atkinson had this great phrase about ‘understanding as a collective activity not an individual activity’ – change happens when we all know what we individually know – so that we can see the other perspectives as well as our own.

We are also learning about this inevitable tension between ‘emergence’ which can feel chaotic and vague – but is where the creativity happens – and the practical steps you need to take to implement a new approach. Move too fast to nail down the new – and you might deliver the wrong thing. Leave it too long, and projects begin to drift. How do we find the right ‘moment of transition?’ It probably doesn’t help to keep putting off implementation until you have engineered the perfect system – because once it goes live, real people will work in ways you didn’t expect. In some of the best projects we are finding ways to make practical decisions ‘for now’ but to use feedback from the front line to constantly rethink and change things – not to move backwards but to make our solutions better. Taken with the right heart, that relentless stream of questions, worries, challenges and obstacles can be really useful.

One of the questions asked from the floor was about whether the fact that we are now trying to save money and are under such financial pressure undermines the ability to create better solutions for service users. We talked a bit about the problems of fear and low morale on the one hand, and the power of a ‘burning platform’ on the other – but I’m still thinking about it. Why couldn’t we make system change in the years when there was money? Can we do it now, against all the obstacles?