Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why, in whole systems, is it so hard to move from papers to action?

This is a shorter version – full version of the above is available here:  full version.

One of the strangest experiences in whole systems change in the public sector is observing how much energy is spent writing papers that are not acted upon, attending meetings that don’t make decisions, and holding workshops that lead to elaborate diagrams but no agreement to proceed.

Ron Heifetz [1]coined the phrase ‘work avoidance’ to describe the way leaders are distracted from the difficult conversations that need to take place if we’re to achieve ambitious outcomes in tough times. Work avoidance is quite the opposite of laziness, indeed to avoid the real leadership work we often exhaust ourselves with back-to-back meetings, and slave over hundreds of pages of data and vast action plans.

Work avoidance, says Heifetz, can take a number of different forms:

It can feel discomfiting to talk about deep feelings and intentions when we are used to an impassive managerial style in our meetings. It can seem like ‘not proper work’ to discuss fears and worries. A flurry of meetings gives a reassuring sense of activity, while difficult conversations can get stuck, or go backwards for a while. But real leadership takes time and self-conscious effort – it involves telephone calls, and meetings in coffee shops, reflection and self-examination, looking into our own hearts to find our values and priorities. It can seem destructive to challenge work avoidance activity, since people are clearly working very hard. Finding ways to do so without blaming individuals is an important part of leadership. But, just as an experiment, if you suspect your ‘system’ is locked into work avoidance, try some of the following:

This is an extract from a longer article that can be found on our website. For more information about OPM’s work on system leadership – contact Sue Goss, Principal in whole-system change and integration –, 020 7239 7800

[1] See, for example, Ron Heifetz: Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard University Press, 1994


Monday, September 19, 2016

City-Wide Partnerships – Belfast


The city of Belfast has an important place-shaping role in Northern Ireland and was recently given additional powers by the Northern Ireland government. We were asked to work with the city to create an innovative partnership architecture for the whole city, working more closely with the private sector, with neighbourhoods and with partner agencies.

What did we do

Through facilitated sessions we worked with politicians, managers and partners to overcome its legacy of division and build a strong shared vision and agenda. What was striking was the incredible number of different partnerships that already existed, but also the complex history that led to each one, and the sensitivities involved in making changes. Belfast is a city where history is very important, and while there is widespread support for building a vibrant and growing economic, it is a place where the maxim ‘moving at the speed of trust’ is highly relevant.


Working with the city’s diverse group of political leaders, we were able to map the links between deep seated problems and the obstacles to economic growth without blame or finger pointing – and to pinpoint the areas where new thinking was needed. By interviewing a wide range of partner organisations, we were able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of current partnership working; no-one wanted an unwieldy talking shop. Instead, leaders formulated an approach based on a network of partnerships – each focussed on a very practical problem – but with an central space for leaders to make the right linkages and build strong relationships. While progress would be gradual, to make the network effective we developed and ran a bespoke leadership programme, developing a cadre of managers from across the city to become ‘system enablers’ sharing data and evidence and working collaboratively to support the partnership network.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Health and social care integration in Kirklees


We have worked to develop collaborative leadership across health and social care systems in a number of localities. In Kirklees we were asked to support the creation of a integrated mental health commissioning system as an exemplar from which the whole system could learn.

What did we do

A very senior group of leaders worked together over a number of sessions to develop a shared set of principles and goal – and a series of practitioner workshops began to flesh out what this would mean for front line services. Recognising that success would depend on the strength of relationships between staff in different organisations, we designed and delivered a ‘Skills for Systems Leadership Programme’ for the public health, social care and CCG senior teams – agreeing key health outcomes and providing the skills and techniques that enabled cross-organisational teams to develop shared approaches to changing behaviour and tackling long-standing problems.


The programme built a strong network of organisations and individual leaders, a shared understanding of systems pressures and agreement about the way forward. The work included providing individual coaching and support to key leaders, facilitation and team coaching sessions for top managers and partnerships. The final stage of the programme was to create a dramatic ‘future scenario’ event for fifty or so participants including the voluntary and community sector, from which partner organisations developed a set of principles to guide future shared direction.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Repairing a dysfunctional partnership (client confidential)


We were asked to step in when relationships between a County Council and Clinical Commissioning Groups broke down. Trust was low, meetings were fractious and unproductive and progress in health and social care integration had halted.

What did we do

Sue Goss began a painstaking process of meeting each of the leaders individually, listening carefully to their feelings as well as their account of what was going wrong. After hearing from everyone, she brought a leadership group together and shared a ‘problem tree’ – a visual representation of all the emotions, concerns, problems and issues that had been aired – and gained agreement from everyone to try and change things. A carefully structured awayday followed, in which leaders worked in pairs to listen to each other and build an understanding of the different perceptions and assumptions that had grown up. These were then shared in small groups and finally in the whole leadership group.


Participants discovered that although they were often in rooms together, the pace and format of meetings and the size of agendas left little time to think and less time for meaningful conversations. The formal technical language of strategy and plans made it hard to express worries, and no-one felt their concerns were heard or responded to. What was striking was that this was a dysfunctional system with no “villains” – everyone was trying to do their best.

By creating space for the right conversations to take place, and the difficult work that had so far been avoided to be faced – it was possible to slowly build trust. Relationships slowly improved over a number of months – and while tensions didn’t go away, it was easier for them to be named, and dealt with. Leaders began to pick up the phone or go for coffee together, rather than sending prickly emails. This is work in progress.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Not waving, but drowning… in data? Managing data and Social Impact Bonds

This is the third blog in the series that summarises key points in a speech I delivered at the 2016 Social Investing and Corporate Social Responsibility Forum, held at Meiji University in Tokyo. Here, I reflect on the following issue:

The importance of data

SIBs are outcomes-focussed. In the first blog of this series, I wrote about outcome metrics, and I think it’s sufficiently appreciated that outcome measurement is critical to the successful of SIBs. It is also widely reported that the ‘data burden’ of SIBs can be considerable. Our first interim evaluation report of the Essex County Council SIB, for example, pointed out that “information and reporting requirements of the SIB have felt onerous for all partners”.

While outcomes are vital, SIBs require more than outcome data to work. If stakeholders are not careful, they may find themselves in a position of expending disproportionate amounts of time and resources in collecting, analysing and reporting data.

We should not, however, simply accept this at face value as a ‘fact’ of SIBs. If we are to take the outcomes-focussed principle to its logical conclusion, then we must surely also be clear about the desired outcomes for data collection and its use. Starting with this helps streamline data collection and use, ensuring that we know why we are collecting certain types of data, and how we are going to use them.

As SIBs involve multiple players, each must develop clarity about data for their specific needs. In addition, the different players need to work together to minimise duplication and ensure that information is shared and that there are systems in place to support collaborative interpretation and scrutiny.

Shared approaches to data categorisation and collection

Different though SIB stakeholders may be, their approaches to data categorisation and collection is surprisingly similar.

When categorising data there are particular ‘headings’ that data relate to. Data can be categorised as regular performance management data, process data, impact data, and cost-benefit data. This points to the fact that delivering a SIB effectively requires parties to monitor ongoing operational matters; constantly assess and review the implementation of the intervention(s); ascertain the degree of which implementation may be leading to the desired outcomes; and assurance that transactions represent good value for money.

Indeed, different SIB players often collect and/or require similar, if not identical, data. This immediately alerts us to the fact that the various players need to work collaboratively to ensure they do not duplicate efforts; share data where relevant; and streamline processes to reduce the overall burden of collecting, analysing and reporting data. Not doing so can lead to unintended additional costs for all parties, as our second Essex SIB interim evaluation report has shown.

Different stakeholders use data differently

While data required can be identical across the various players, the use of the same data can be quite different.

Outcome payers scrutinise data as part of due diligence, which can be heightened in the case of SIBs. They need to show that they have undergone robust scrutiny of the data to justify paying out to investors. They also look at data from the point of view of assessing performance against the original business case for the SIB, and to see how the SIB way of doing things compare with more conventional ways of commissioning services.

Service providers look at the data in terms of understanding the effectiveness of implementation and the efficacy of the intervention. This may be particularly true if they are not delivering a strongly evidence-based intervention, and/or if their intervention is flexible and adaptive. In addition, service providers will wish to be clear about the true cost of delivering a service under a SIB model and how it compares with other ways of ‘selling’ services. They may be interested in ‘going to market’ more widely through a SIB model, and such information is therefore crucial in helping to price appropriately and competitively. Needless to say, most if not all service providers have a strong focus on outcomes for their service users.

Social investors, from our experience, tend to look at data with an eye on what can be improved. They are always looking at how they may redirect resources, adjust inputs and the approach to give it the best chance of success. After all, payment is linked to success. They also look at the data to assess return on investment, and how it compares with other forms of investment, and also how it compares with their investments in other SIBs.

Evaluators, of course, look at the bigger picture in terms of what the impact of the SIB has been and whether it adds values, over and above the operational concerns of individual SIB players. This is where I would encourage evaluators of SIBs to place emphasis on understanding the impact of the SIB, as opposed to the impact of the intervention per se. There is a real gap in our collective knowledge base in terms of how and whether SIBs add value; and whether particular models of SIBs may be more or less effective in different contexts, policy areas, or target groups.


Just as SIBs are focussed on outcomes, the exercise of collecting and analysing data for a SIB should equally be outcomes-focussed. Many commentators have noted that SIBs can be overly complex, and data requirement is often part of this complexity. Equally, commentators have pointed out that in order for SIBs to flourish and to achieve the desired degree of spread and scale, it is vital for us to work together to find ways of simplifying and streamlining core SIB components so as to reduce transaction costs.

There will always be a degree of bespoke tailoring required in specific contexts, but there are core generic components that may be simplified or made consistent. The information collection and reporting requirement seems to be one of these ‘design features’ of SIBs, using the terminology from Bridges Ventures, that may be amenable to this, thereby contributing towards reducing the transaction costs of SIBs.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Japan in Spring: the budding potential for Social Impact Bonds

I was flattered to have been invited back to Japan in April to speak at the 2016 Social Investing and Corporate Social Responsibility Forum, held at Meiji University in Tokyo. Japanese colleagues specifically asked me to touch on the following issues:

  1. How do the various Social Impact Bond (SIB) players identify and structure outcome metrics?
  2. Can you structure outcome metrics in a way that is not motivated directly by budgetary savings but by social wellbeing?
  3. What data do the various SIB players need to collect, and how do they analyse and use the information?
  4. What are some lessons that OPM have learned from evaluating SIBs?

This is the first, in a series of blogs, summarising some of my key messages.


How do the various SIB players identify and structure outcome metrics?

There are a number of factors to consider when identifying metrics for SIB-funded programmes. However, this is an art not a science and it should support – not obscure – the achievement of meaningful outcomes.

The ‘3 Ms’

I work to three key principles called the ‘3 Ms’, namely, metrics should be:


a) While SIBs are focused on outcomes, for contracting purposes, the duration of SIBs has to work for the outcomes payers, social investors and service providers. Hence, metrics are usually some form of intermediate or proxy indicators. There should be a compelling rationale to believe that if these intermediate/proxy outcomes are generated, then it is plausible that the longer term desired outcomes are likely to be achieved.

b) Metrics should be easily interpretable. What does it mean if an indicator goes up, stays the same, or comes down? Take ‘reporting of crime’ as an example; if crime reporting goes up, is it because there is more crime (which is bad) or is it because people are getting better at reporting crime (which is good)?


a) Can the outcome be measured consistently and robustly? Where it is not already collected routinely, what are the resource implications for collecting the data, and are there tools and processes for collecting the data well.

b) Do we have the systems in place to support good measurement?


As SIBs are based on the ability to pay for stated outcomes, there needs to be some mechanism for pricing those outcomes. It is common to find outcomes being priced based on some projected savings resulting from those outcomes being achieved, but outcome pricing does not always have to stem from budgetary savings.

Roles in identifying and structuring outcome metrics

Social investors, outcome payers, service providers and intermediaries are all very diverse and have different motivations, so it can be hard to generalise. Crudely speaking, their roles and significance of their roles can vary depending on the type of SIB.

Outside of the UK, individually-negotiated SIBs are most common. This type of SIB means that the outcome payers often work very closely with service providers and sometimes with the help of external intermediaries to help them define and structure outcome metrics.

In the UK, we similarly have individually-negotiated SIBs (for example, the Essex SIB that OPM has been evaluating). However, UK is unique because we have many SIBs developed through an Impact Bond Fund model (e.g. the Innovation Fund, Fair Chance Fund, Youth Engagement Fund). Under this model, government departments (as outcomes payers) spent a lot of time analysing data and came up with what is known as a ‘rate card’ that specifies the different outcomes that the government is interested in, how the outcomes should be measured, and the maximum price that the government will pay for each outcome.

There are now SIBs that are developed by service providers and sometimes intermediaries. In these cases, the service provider or intermediary led the development of the outcome metrics. For service providers, it is usually because they have a long history of delivering a specific intervention and have been measuring its effectiveness in a particular way.

Structuring outcome metrics and payment

Crudely speaking, this is done at the individual level or at the group level. At the individual level, outcomes are specified for the individual participant/beneficiary. It may be one outcome per participant, or could be a series of outcomes for that person. This is the approach used in the Impact Bond Fund SIBs. In the first round of the Innovation Fund, the rate card issued by the UK Department for Work and Pensions specified that one of the desired outcomes was ‘improved behaviour at school’. This outcome was to be measured by ‘letter from teacher’. The achievement of this outcome for the pupil triggers a payment of up to £800.

In comparison a group-level approach can be structured in two ways. First, you focus solely at the intervention group and define the number or the percentage within that group that needs to demonstrate the outcome. This is the approach used in Germany’s SIB which specified that at least 20 individuals out of the group of 100+ must experience the outcome for payment to be triggered.

Alternatively, you can compare the intervention group against a control group. In these scenarios, there are often thresholds set for outcome levels. For example, the Peterborough SIB structured its outcome metrics in a way that supported two different payment triggers. The first is when an intervention cohort demonstrates at least 10% reduction in reoffending compared with the control group. If this condition is not met, a second way for triggering payment is if all three intended cohorts have an average reduction in reoffending of at least 7.5%.


It strikes me that while the principles underpinning outcome metric selection are clear, the act of identifying and structuring them in support of SIBs is as much an art as it is a science. There is no single approach that works in all cases. I think it is important that we do not get lost in the technicalities and forget about what is really important. Instead, we must always keep a clear eye on outcomes and make sure that we identify and structure metrics in a way that supports meaningful achievement of those outcomes.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Coach training course delivered by OPM receives award from leading professional body

OPM’s Institute for Leadership (ILM) Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Mentoring course has received an Accredited Award in Coach Training status by the Association for Coaching (AC).

Dedicated to promoting ‘promoting excellence & ethics in coaching’ worldwide, the Association remarked that the programme:

The Association for Coaching offers accreditation of coach training programmes to drive the highest standards in coaching. AC Coach Training Accreditation signals to students that OPM’s ILM Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Mentoring meets the AC standard for comprehensive coach training, encompassing the application of coaching competencies, working within ethical guidelines and providing practical experience.


Please visit the ILM training and Leadership and Organisational Development pages for more information on OPM’s training offer.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Systems Leadership in Complex Cities

How OPM recently worked with Vietnamese civil servants to explore the role of systems leadership in complex city challenges.

With a population centre of more than 10 million people, London is the UK’s one and only megacity. Whilst the city plays a dominant global role, there is no doubting that its sheer volume of people, communities and businesses creates unique social, economic and environmental challenges.

Much of OPM’s change and transformation work seeks to address complex and uncertain situations like these through systems leadership thinking.

This sort of leadership has been defined as “the collaborative leadership of a network of people in different places and at different levels of the system creating a shared endeavour and cooperating to make a significant change.”

Systems leadership will therefore be crucial in meeting the challenges of megacities, and so we were delighted to host a delegation of planning and investment civil servants from Vietnam earlier this month to explore the role of systems leadership in the context of complex city challenges.

The event, organised in conjunction with the University of Southampton’s business school, explored systems leadership through a case study on 9 Elms. 9 Elms is a key regeneration initiative in the centre of London that will create among other things, 18,000 new homes; 25,000 new jobs; 2 new tube stations and a new linear park.

Whilst the regeneration efforts will contribute to local economic growth, there are already concerns around a lack of affordable housing, the long term viability of local independent businesses and the balance between commercial and civic space.

After learning more about systems leadership, the delegates were tasked with identifying the potential problems that may arise as the project progresses and the systems leadership skills and behaviours that would be required to overcome these problems.

The feedback from each group was remarkably similar. The project’s success will require the cultivating of positive and honest relationships between partners across the public and private sector, while the tension between profitability and creating a pleasant living environment will have to be managed sensitively throughout the process. Those involved in leading the regeneration efforts will also need to be brave enough to confront difficult conversations when interests conflict or risk stalling the progress of the project.

OPM would like to thank Dr Stefan Cantore from University of Southampton’s Business School for jointly facilitating the event and the NCVO for providing the venue for the day.

For more information on OPM’s experiences around systems leadership, you can download our recent paper, “Systems Leadership: A view from the bridge.”

Friday, July 3, 2015

Employee ownership is no country for old men

There’s something distinctive and special about leadership in employee owned companies and it’s central to the sector’s success

No country for old men

Today is Employee Ownership Day, when businesses up and down the country will celebrate the benefits of working without having to answer to external shareholders, usually with cake.

Employee ownership is a big deal at the moment. The sector is worth £30 billion – equating to 3% of GDP, and the number of employee owned businesses in the UK has grown at an annual rate of 9% per year. The Government announced tax breaks for organisations that commit to shared ownership in last year’s Finance Bill, recognising that these businesses are helping to address the UK’s deepest seated economic challenges.

At OPM Group we’ve been working on this for over a decade. We became the UK’s first employee owned ‘public interest’ company when our founders wanted to retire and needed a safe pair of hands to entrust the business to; deciding that the safest hands were the people who had built the business alongside them, and so our employee buyout began.

Things have changed a lot since then, as we’ve weathered successive Governments, internal changes of leadership and a hesitant recovery from the financial crash. I took over as Chair of our Ownership Trust in January 2014, assuming the position of a non-executive director at the tender age of 28. And that’s the feature of employee ownership that I want to talk about – how my experience proves that different people from outside the traditional management hierarchy and demographic can be empowered to take on leadership roles.

Employee owned businesses have a wide range of organisational forms, but in most cases the owners delegate day to day responsibility for the business to a management structure. The key here is that these two structures run in parallel, and in many businesses (including ours) there’s a culture of encouraging a wide representation on the ownership side. This acknowledges that employees at every level can lead – we have representatives from our most junior level through to our most senior working together to hold the board to account.

This ownership structure has given me the opportunity to take on a leadership role much earlier in my career than would have otherwise been possible, crucially without needing to acquire the ‘status’ usually associated with non-employee owned companies. We also choose our ownership leaders in a different way via a popular vote. The qualities needed to win an election voted for by your peers aren’t necessarily the same as those required to sit a senior management interview, and that has major benefits. This diversity of perspectives and styles mixes things up in board meetings, and also provides a positive example to all employees that there isn’t one cookie cutter route to success.

The nature of employee ownership also influences the way in which we exercise leadership. We take a collaborative approach to problem solving, with everyone expecting to contribute to the challenges we face as a business. This could range from suggesting an idea for saving money in a group session at our general meeting, or leading a small task group to investigate a new area for business development. I see all of these as opportunities for people to explore leadership roles outside of their ‘day jobs’, and the further responsibility of being an owner of the business is what makes this real.

All this positivity isn’t the whole picture though as there are problems in employee owned businesses just like any other. Having an organisational structure that challenges hierarchies doesn’t magically dissipate power imbalances, or give every employee the confidence to take on a leadership role. It took me a long time to get over the impostor feeling in board rooms and find my voice – I couldn’t have done it without the support of a great board team and a mentor who listened patiently to all the things I wish I said after each meeting and to challenge my negative assumptions.

I’m still working on this, but I’m also increasingly, in turn, trying to show others that they are capable of leadership too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

OPM features heavily in influential new Systems Leadership paper

The Leadership Centre‘s role is to create the space for senior managers and politicians from across the public sector to think about the ambitions they have for their communities and how they can achieve them in order to fundamentally transform their localities for the better. It is made up of leadership experts with experience in politics, central and local government and the wider public and private sectors.

Its most recent publication, ‘The Art of Change Making’, is a collection of theories, approaches, tools and techniques for understanding the complex interactions between people and organisations and how to intervene to create meaningful change. These are used by current practitioners in developing systems leadership.

OPM features heavily in the paper. The document can be downloaded by clicking on the image below:

Quotes from OPM’s Principal in Local Services Sue Goss can be found on pages 199, 205-206 and 130, OPM Associate Paul Tarplett on pages 4, 117, 120, 186, 209, 211-212 and 217, Matt Gott on pages 2, 50, 71 and Liz Goold on pages 57, 93, 147 and 245.

Sue Goss has also published a short paper on the subject, Systems Leadership: A View from the Bridge, a personal account of what has been learned from working with leaders collaborating across organisations to achieve difficult outcomes with shrinking resources since 2010.