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, 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.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coaching skills to help NHS Trust managers meet the challenges of Foundation Trust status


Pennine Care NHS Trust is a mental health trust in the north west of England which in recent years became a foundation trust. As part of the transition the Trust was keen to ensure that managers at the third tier level were able to meet the challenges of foundation trust status. In particular, the Trust wished to enhance the capability of managers to work together effectively – this level being the crucial interface between strategic and operational functions.

One of the Trust’s senior managers had participated in one of OPM’s ILM Diploma in Executive Coaching and Leadership Mentoring programmes and was keen to draw on the benefits of coaching for helping managers, individually and collectively, to achieve this goal. Working closely with the senior manager we designed a bespoke one-to-one coaching programme that was implemented over an 8-month period during 2009 and created space for third tier managers to:

What we did

The coaching programme comprised three elements:

  1. A ‘scene-setting’ team workshop facilitated by OPM to open the programme;
  2. A series of four one-to-one coaching sessions for each manager with an independent executive coach provided by OPM – these sessions focused on building each manager’s capabilities in areas of relevance to them; and
  3. A ‘forward planning’ team workshop facilitated by OPM to close the programme and determine how to follow-up emerging themes.

At the scene-setting workshop an OPM coach used a team coaching approach to enable managers to identify the major challenges facing the third tier team as a starting point for individuals to establish an appropriate agenda for the coaching conversations. Following the series of confidential coaching sessions the team came back together for the forward planning workshop to share their learning, agree practical strategies for moving the team (and the Trust) forward.

In subsequent years the Trust commissioned OPM to run ILM Level 5 and 7 coaching qualification programmes as part of its strategy to establish a cadre of in-house coaches and develop a coaching culture. Over the years we have continued to provide support to Pennine Care coaches in the form of supervision and advanced skills workshops. Now that the Trust has trained its own internal coach supervisor our role has focused on CPD activities.

We have continued to provide executive coaching to individual managers on a call-off basis, including:


Our coaching work with Pennine Care has been highly successful. Feedback from the senior manager who commissioned the coaching indicates that both he and his top team colleagues have noticed significant improvements in individual effectiveness, notably in relation to influencing, giving and receiving feedback, and in the cohesion of the management team, including the incorporation of new members.

The Trust sees coaching – alongside other organisational development initiatives – as a key way of equipping individual managers and teams to deal with the challenges of foundation status. OPM is now working with the Trust to create a team of qualified, in-house executive coaches at senior level to sustain and expand the benefits of coaching throughout