If only “they” would ………

By Ken Perry - on 18/03/2015

Ken Perry, Director of Do Well (UK), reflects on the need to move beyond organisational boundaries to address the most complex challenges we face and how HACT’s Systems Leadership Masterclass will show you the way.

In my 30 + years working in housing, regeneration and neighbourhoods I have always loved working across organisational and cultural boundaries to get things done with and for the people and / or place I was serving at the time.  I have enjoyed this way of working because it is active, creative and reminds me of why I signed up to work in housing in the first place, to make a difference.  Even when I was a front line Housing Officer and certainly later on as a Chief Executive, I was clear that no matter how hard I tried or how good my organisation was, helping folk transform their lives was too complex a task for one organisation.

So, with the above realisation in mind I have spent a large chunk of my life building alliances to work in and for particular places with varying degrees of success, but always with maximum effort and passion.  This leads me to my question, if the input was often the same and the complexity of the challenges similar why was the output so variable and why did we always seem to have a gap or five, in terms of people we wanted around the table?  Those at the table, myself included, would often say, “We could achieve so much more if only they would turn up, stay committed or even show an interest in this challenge”.  Sound familiar? 

The easy answer of course is that they just don’t get it, they are not as committed as us and they are too inward looking and concerned only with their own organisation’s success and performance measures. They will never come down from their ivory towers and work alongside us, so lets just get on with it without themThey have had their chance…….

Just getting on with it, with a gang of like-minded individuals is a laudable approach and outcomes can be good.  The process can be high risk though and in current times organisational risk appetite is lower than even in recent years, for many good reasons.  Getting them to the table to share the risk and add vital knowledge, skill, creativity and maybe even cash is therefore more important than ever especially as the challenges in many places are greater and more complex than ever.

How do we get them to the table?

What you will get from the HACT Master class is the beginning of the answer to this question, but you will also learn that this may not be the right question and that in some places, you are they and you didn’t know it!

You will begin to learn about the concept of Systems Leadership.  An approach that begins by recognising that the challenges faced by many individuals and places are complex or “wicked” and that the first step is to work with as broad a group as possible, not on solutions, but on deeply understanding the challenge – picking it apart from everyone’s perspective to ensure the problem is handcrafted in definition by those committed to solving it.  The mobilising impact of this approach is MASSIVE and the solutions start to be crafted not from an organisation’s perspective, but always with reference to the challenge in hand.

Debbie Sorkin, a wonderful woman whom I met last year and is the National Director of Systems Leadership for the Leadership Centre within the LGA, writes and talks extensively on the subject says the following in her introduction to the subject of systems leadership:

If current health, social care and other leadership frameworks describe leadership behaviours within an organisation, Systems Leadership is about how you approach leadership when you’re working across organisations and/or sectors – so when you need to go beyond your own service or area of expertise and interact with others, often with very different priorities and points of view.

It’s the kind of leadership that’s particularly helpful when you’re dealing with large, complex, difficult and seemingly intractable problems; where you need to juggle multiple uncertainties; where no one person or organisation can find or implement the solution on their own; where everyone is grappling with how to provide quality with the resources available; and where the way forward therefore lies in involving as many people’s energies, ideas, talents and expertise as possible.

These kinds of complex problems have been defined[1] as “wicked” issues: that is, issues which have multiple causes and no single solution; where there’s no real certainty or direction about what needs to be done; where you can’t simply do what you’ve done before; where there is no clear relationship between cause and effect; where there will be knock-on effects whatever you do; where trade-offs are likely to be necessary; and where questions and reflection are more important than jumping to conclusions. 

Local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups, Health and Wellbeing Boards, social care providers in the independent sector, providers of different therapy services, housing associations, social workers, the voluntary sector and community groups are all likely to come up against these issues more and more, as they work to embed service integration and personalisation across what they do, and at a time when they commonly have less money than they need; increased levels of complexity to deal with; and higher expectations than they can cope with.

Systems Leadership identifies ways of working that help providers and commissioners get to grips with these issues.  This paper therefore introduces Systems Leadership approaches; outlines the work currently going on across health, housing and social care that is utilising Systems Leadership, and its potential value and applicability; and identifies avenues for people involved in the commissioning or deliver of public services, whatever their role, to get involved with funded projects. 

Systems Leadership

Systems Leadership goes beyond partnership or collaboration, because it’s not just about retaining your own power and authority whilst working with others.  Because of the complexity of the issues involved, Systems Leadership recognises that leadership is not vested solely in people because of their job titles or authority, and works on the basis that leadership and influence are distributed.  It therefore involves being willing to cede leadership to others if they’re in the best position to provide it, and to come together not on the basis of a single pre-identified solution, but on the basis of a wider shared ambition or purpose, for example for a group of Service Users.  Systems Leadership welcomes partial, clumsy or emergent solutions, and supports experimentation, working with uncertainty and adapting as you go along.

Systems leadership behaviours therefore include:

o   focusing on outcomes and results rather than processes

o   basing the work on strong but honest relationships

o   allowing for experimentation – and therefore allowing for risk

o   being willing to genuinely listen to others and see their point of view

o   being able to adapt, going with ‘good enough’ solutions and building on them rather than waiting until you have the perfect service/solution.

Come to the HACT master class on 16th April 2015

This is a vital strategic competence that could transform how you and your organisation works.  The world we live in is increasingly high risk and complex, we need to equip ourselves with skills that go beyond traditional leadership models, so come and hear Debbie talk more about the strong theory and application of Systems Leadership and hear me tell a few stories about how I may have suffered fewer sleepless nights, held onto less risk myself and achieved more for the folk I’ve being trying to help all of these years if I’d know what I know now!

We can then all debate about how strategically this approach could be applied to complex challenges you are facing every day.


[1] Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership, Warwick Business School: Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership.  Originally published in Clinical Leader, Volume I Number II, December 2008




Hi Ken

Good to hear you are doing well, and of course anything on joined up work on complex challenges catches my eye. I'd have loved to attend the session Ken, but I'm working on Romania now, on some extremely joined up problems! Good luck, and see you soon I hope. By the way, in 15 years on this I leArned that it makes a huge difference to boil a complex intransigent job down to a simple route map. Not alway easy! Good design crucial too!

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