“What if we collaborated?” The role of systems leadership

by .

This piece by Dr Sue Goss, Principal in Whole Systems and Integration; The Office for Public Management UK, was presented at an international conference in January 2018.

“The collaborative processes of integrated governance require leadership models that are clearly differentiated from the hierarchical model familiar in bureaucracies. What is the role of leaders so that a collaborative process can exist and succeed?”

In the 21st Century, we are learning to collaborate. The solutions to social problems in the 20th century created great public institutions, and community movements, but each one tended to work in its own silo, creating its own rules and assumptions, generating hard working professionals confident in their expertise, but poor at working across boundaries. Now, as social change and new technology generates a society of networks, our public and community institutions are learning to work differently. We are starting to look at social problems from very different angles. We are beginning to challenge the assumptions about how the state can intervene to solve social problems – and we are learning that to understand complex social issues we need to use all the brains available – across sectors, across agencies and at all levels. Hierarchy, secrecy, closed minds –get in the way. Already there are many experiments – and managers, professionals, front line workers – yes, and even politicians – are learning to collaborate. But it requires a very different sort of leadership.

The UK experiments

In the UK we have been experimenting with partnerships between public bodies, voluntary sector bodies and private sector companies since the 1990s. The Blair government established local strategic partnerships – bringing together all the public agencies within a local authority boundary – but they became talking shops and have mostly been disbanded. More successful have been partnerships focussed on a single issue – crime; social care; health, economic growth. We have had for many years, successful partnerships between the police and local authorities, between business leaders and local authorities, and between health and social care organisations.

As austerity bites – we have turned to collaborative working to try and reduce costs – local authorities begin to merge, or share services or even share managers – hospitals merge; police, local government and health organisations begin to co-locate.

Now we are engaged in a vast experiment to integrate health and social care creating a single holistic approach to population health. Until now social care has been run by local government and health care by the national NHS, with commissioners of health separated from providers, such as hospitals, and a multiplicity of public and private care organisations, primary care practices and voluntary agencies. All this fragmentation is costly, creating duplication, bureaucracy and redundancy. But the collaborative effort is voluntary – and depends on partnerships of many organisations working together. Across the country, managers, police officers, doctors, nurses, social workers, community leaders, service users – often from up to twenty different agencies at a time – are working together to re-design models of care for children, for frail elderly people, and for people with complex needs. They are trying to reduce the medicalisation of people’s lives, to give back some control, to involve patients in self-help and creating multi-disciplinary professional teams.

And while there has been a lot of goodwill and activity – progress has been slow. What slows us down is trust. Leaders don’t trust each other not to take commercial or financial advantage, managers don’t trust systems designed by other managers, professionals and clinicians don’t trust clinical judgements made by other clinicians. We have under-estimated the extent to which organisations and professional groups become closed communities – seeing themselves in opposition to ‘others’ – We build assumptions and myths about ‘others’ to confirm our own identity – practitioners distrust academics, academics despair of old fashioned clinicians, doctors condescend to nurses, and nurses roll their eyes behind the backs of doctors. Organisations that have put a lot of work into building their ‘brand’ and ‘image’ and are reluctant to dilute this in collective action. Individuals’ professional identity is bound up with the information and processes they understand: each carries a different sorts of knowledge.  So when we ask staff and organisations to work together we are challenging their sense of identity and boundaries.

In the UK we are learning that these issues of trust and identity are at the core of achieving effective collaboration. Where this is not explored properly, we are discovering what Martha Roberts at NHS England calls ‘pseudo- teams’, or pseudo-partnerships – which are really committees of defensive players. In these pseudo -partnerships, organisations pretend to work together, draft many shared documents, make vague statements of intent, but never actually move from talking to action. They are characterised by what Ron Heifetz calls ‘waste activity’ taking up thousands of hours in meetings which never make progress. They fail, because they never explore the really difficult questions of purpose, values, identity and meaning – they concentrate on statistics and actions plans without exploring, honestly, the existential fears of their staff.

The three most important obstacles seem to be:

  • Not having time to think about the most important issues
  • Not learning to understand each other
  • Not sharing understanding or information

Collaborative leadership – leading in systems

So the leadership that is required is leadership that addresses these problems.

In a collaborative endeavour, no-one has the authority to direct others. Often, at first, we don’t agree about the problem, let alone understand the solution. People come together voluntarily to solve a problem that matters to them, but they come with often conflicting pressures and motivations. They don’t always see the same things, or agree about what is important. They may use different words to describe things. In these situations:

  • We have no formal authority to make others do what we want – and the power and influence of many players is needed to achieve change.
  • We are working with the highly complex interactions of different problems.
  • No-one sees the whole picture, and no-one knows everything about what is needed to make change happen.

So, we are often in uncharted territory – attempting something that has not successfully been done before.

Systems leadership, collaborative leadership, adaptive leadership – call it what you will – is almost the opposite of command and control. I have been studying this for the past decade, in the field, researching and evaluating the effectiveness of partnerships through national studies, and facilitating and enabling partnerships of different organisations at local level.

Leaders may come from anywhere within the system – not simply from the top. Leaders are not the people who have ‘leader’ written on their door, but the people who step forward. They may be a chief executive, or a doctor, or a community worker.  But our research and observation suggests that effective collaborative leaders attend to the same things.

Create a community of leaders

Social change never simply involves a single leader – others have to be engaged, won over and inspired. This sort of leadership is always a personal choice – leadership is exercised when individuals decide that that the prize is sufficiently important, that change is possible, and that the alternatives will damage the social outcomes they believe in. Once the decision is taken to lead, the work is to figure out exactly how to do that. Radical change will involve risk, since it will antagonise vested interests and challenge assumptions. Leaders are often working ‘beyond the boundaries of their authority’ in situations where they are no longer the ‘boss’ but have to win consent from partners, government, communities. Leaders therefore need to find other leaders to work with them, and to build a shared endeavour – a shared sense of purpose. Leaders from one organisation often have little power to make people in other organisations do things, so collaborative change cannot be implemented unless other leaders ‘plug in’ the power of their own – and to do that they have to inspire and lead their staff.

A crucial element of success is the capacity of system leaders to recognise each other and appreciate the contribution they each make. System Leadership is about building a network – not creating new complicated governance structures. By connecting the people, not the organisations, it is possible to move from committees to informal conversations, looser meetings, making sure the right people are in the room, getting the right work done in advance. The most important meetings are often in coffee shops.

This community needs to look after each other. Each leader will face difficult challenges and choices and will need support. It is important that the community of leaders understands and empathises with the difficulties each faces, and helps each other rather than blaming. Leaders need to learn to understand each other as people, so that they can offer the human warmth and trust that will be needed. This will be tested – as difficulties arise, arguments and conflicts will break out – and leaders need to care enough about each other, and about the outcome, to help solve these problems without allowing them to escalate.

Start with values

Collaborative leadership starts with values. We need to know ‘why’ we are doing this. Innovation involves changing traditional practice, and challenging assumptions –so leaders, and their followers, have to believe in what they are doing. Unless there is a compelling reason to take a path that is difficult and strewn with obstacles, people won’t take it. So when a group of leaders decides to take action, they need to work together as a team to explore their values, their passions, their concerns, and to learn to understand each other as people – where they come from, what they believe in – discussing, in depth, what they really want to achieve and why. They may not agree about everything to begin with, and may simply agree to walk together for some of the way – but sharing ideas about destinations is useful because people can begin to see each other’s vision. There may not be agreement about a final destination, the path may change over time, as they learn more. The shared endeavour is a journey, and leaders need to work together on creating a story of the journey, why they are embarking on that journey and what it will bring.

Collaboration challenges people’s professional and organisational identity, so an important step is to create a new identity – a new ‘us’ built around a shared purpose to drive collaborative effort.

Create the conditions for trust

Collaboration means shifting from the interests of a single organisation to a sense of the ‘greater good’. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since different professionals and organisations look at the ‘good’ they are trying to achieve from different perspectives. It is too easy to assume that the interests of others are diametrically opposed to our own. Often there is a way to make our goals congruent. So an important part of the process is one of ‘reframing’ – listening to each other’s views carefully, exploring differences, and discovering what we might have in common if we worked together.  It is only by exploring together, for example, that we can find a path to make the police officer’s goal of preventing crime congruent with the health worker’s goal of helping homeless people with mental health problems.  Leaders need to create a ‘culture of encounter’ not just for senior people, but for all staff, at all levels, so that they can work across boundaries wherever possible, and work with service users, carers and patients, learning to understand each other, listening to each other’s stories, building shared understanding. Sometimes these conversations will be dialectic –thesis – antithesis leading to synthesis. Sometimes, however, they will be dialogic – by listening carefully, each side will learn something and change, but not necessarily reach agreement.. Not yet.

While positive values do much to build up people’s courage and motivation, people’s feelings are not always positive. Once we are in the territory of emotion, we have to recognise that among the emotions are fear, anxiety, sadness. Accessing and talking about these emotions can be vital in building relationships and alliances that are strong enough to cope with the difficulties that will be encountered along the way.

Changing the work

Collaborative leader makes endless spaces for this process of encounter to happen.  This means designing the right working spaces – workshops not committee meetings – so that real work can take place – open meetings without papers – with time to think. Collaboration is a muscle that strengthens as it is used.

In order to change the outcomes we achieve, we need to learn to work in very different ways. Importantly, we need to change what we think the work is, moving away from bureaucratic work and spending more time in open conversation.

It is very difficult to think in conventional meetings. We learn very little about what people think when we discuss long detailed papers. Leadership is also, therefore about changing the spaces within which we work.

Heifetz talks about moving from a ‘committee’ to an ‘expeditionary force’. Meetings should prepare for action.  In a good meeting, the creative tension between the different ways of thinking that people from different backgrounds bring enables us to think new thoughts – and come up with better solutions. Exploring differences is often more productive than concentrating on the things we agree about. If no-one can see the whole system, then presenting a paper about the answer from our own point of view is not a safe place to start. A good starting point is probably that everyone is probably right. Everyone probably can see something that is true, important and worrying. Only if we set aside enough time to listen and explore will we learn this.

This process of problem solving has to involve everyone from the front-line to the senior management – connecting their conversations – making sure that obstacles can be removed that are in the way of solutions – making sure that the senior leaders see the experience on the front line, and the front line take responsibility for making change happen. We build trust and collaboration by working together to solve real, practical problems.

Sharing information

A crucial element in building trust is sharing information. Each organisation has different information, which means each looks at a problem from a different angle. Its only by sharing everything that we can build a  better understanding of the whole problem, in all its glorious human complexity. We often need to work together to search for new information, and we need to learn to respect the value of different sorts of information. Doctors and scientists and  bureaucrats often rely on statistics, while community leaders tell stories. It is all knowledge, and all adds value, telling us different sides of the truth. Sharing information  between organisations is not always easy – we are struggling in the UK at the moment in our health system to get hospitals to share financial data – because they are concerned for their own survival. There are endless IT and confidentiality problems. But the more information we can share, the more we build trust.

Building Relationships 

Relationships matter because these conversations can be difficult, and involve staying with discomfort and accepting information that doesn’t accord with your view of the world. So leaders need to create spaces in which relationships can be built that can handle this. That means behaving well, listening carefully, treating each other with generosity, respecting the commitment and passion of people who think differently to us. Often it just means time, stopping rushing from meeting to meeting, looking away from our phones, paying attention to each other.

Observing the system in action

A key leadership skill is that of observing what is really happening (as opposed to what is supposed to be happening). It is easy, rushing from meeting to meeting, to believe the diagrams and the project plans, and not to notice the real human behaviours that are taking place, the arguments, the absences, the protective silences and the failures to deliver. In complex open systems, there is no single source of energy or power, and the results depend on the interactions of many players. It is as important to watch the patterns of these interactions as it is to direct activity. Heifetz talks about ‘getting away from the dance floor and onto the balcony’ – getting a vantage point from which you can watch the activities and reactions of others. A key discovery about complex systems is that each player can only see part of the system from their vantage point – so the capacity to share what others can see and build a picture of the ‘whole system’ gives real diagnostic strength. From noticing, leaders need to build a diagnosis, learning to understand why things are happening and looking for underlying causes. It may take quite a bit of reflection to understand the cause of a problem. Are the clinicians on board? Are system imperatives in conflict? If instead of seeing delivery problems as evidence of ‘bad faith’ we use them to understand the system better, we can begin to uncover the real system dynamics and find interventions that can disrupt the pattern.

Naming the difficulties

While it is obviously important to be positive, a key leadership role is to name the difficulties. This takes courage. Heifetz says that often a leader has to expose conflicts that people are trying to ignore or deny – helping everyone to name the problem and address it honestly. Sometimes a leader needs to help to reframe a problem – to break out of an endless argument to think about something in new ways. Sometimes they need to challenge the current rules and the ways things are being done. Sometimes they need to press the ‘alarm’ bell if progress is not being made, to identify the threat of inertia. Good leaders look out for ‘avoidance activity’ It is tempting in partnerships to try and create order by putting all the emphasis on project management and workstreams and milestones, which give a comforting impression of progress. It is tempting to think that the more meetings we are holding, the more papers we are writing the more work is being done. But it is important to watch out for conversations that are being avoided – because they seem too dangerous or threatening. Sometimes they are the most important conversations. Often, a chaotic, floundering exploration about  ‘what are we trying to do here’ will actually be more productive.

Create clarity for now

Often, in the very early stages when we are exploring together, nothing is very clear. \there may not even be agreement about objectives. The important part of system change involves meaning – what it means for us, and what it means in terms of what will change for citizens. Leaders have the job of creating meaning that will steer the work. This takes time.

But ambiguity doesn’t mean vagueness. There are two important sources of clarity. One is the long term collective endeavour – what we are signing up to work on – probably for many years. The second is ‘clarity for now’ what we are choosing to put our energy into in the short term – sorting out the resources, setting priorities, doing some work from which we can learn. It may not matter where we start – there is s strong system leaders adage ‘follow the energy’.

Most people can only take uncertainty for so long. To make things happen, leaders have to make practical decisions and clarify enough things ‘for now’ so that everyone knows the boundaries and can get going. Not everything can be fluid at the same time. But some of these decisions are provisional – and minds might have to change – the front line might find out the approach doesn’t work, or needs to be adjusted. Leaders need constant and real time feedback loops about how it’s going on the ground.

There seems to be an inherent and permanent tension between evolutionary solutions and getting on with doing practical things. Move too quickly into delivery – and the wrong interventions are implemented. Move too slowly, and everyone starts to lose belief. The first attempt may not work, and may need to be unpicked quickly, so leaders need to be able to move fast and rethink. Getting that ‘moment of transition’ right is an art in itself.

What are collaborative leaders doing when they lead?

How do we catch this sort of leadership in action? Good systems leadership is probably not going to be speech making or giving orders. It might be thinking, quietly about what is happening, and checking this out with others. It might be a phone call to another potential leader. It might be the work to craft a really good story to inspire staff. It might be allowing junior staff to find their own solutions without interfering. It might be getting together with other staff to solve a problem when you haven’t been given permission to do so. It might mean holding off government officials or regulators to create space for innovation. It might simply be personal courage or patience. A crucial element of effective collaborative leadership is about ‘being’ – reflecting carefully about the impact you are making on situations, and deploying your own energy effectively to help and support the leadership of others.

Most collaborative leaders are ‘dancing on the edge of their authority’ – doing things they were not entirely asked to do, or solving problems by breaking rules, or persuading their superiors to allow them to do things that were not anticipated. If you are following orders, then you are neither innovating, nor leading. But this dance needs to  be made safe, so effective collaborative leaders are winning consent, gaining permission,  providing the narrative that enables others to make space for innovation. I have seldom worked with a good collaborative leader who didn’t say ‘I don’t suppose I am supposed to do this… but” and their reason is always the same ‘but it’s the right thing to do.”

A powerful study of what collaborative leaders do in action was completed by the Colebrook Centre and the Cass Business School in the UK, commissioned by the ADCS virtual Staff college. They interviewed scores of system leaders about what they actually did in practice. The learning from those leaders, suggested six dimensions of system leadership:

  • Ways of feeling – about personal values
  • Ways of perceiving – listening, observing and diagnosis
  • Ways of thinking – intellectual rigour in analysis and synthesis
  • Ways of relating – the conditions that enable and support others
  • Ways of doing – changing the work to enable change to happen
  • Ways of being – personal qualities that support distributed leadership

Leaders are always engaged in all of these six dimensions – and if they are not paying attention to all six, they are probably making an impact they didn’t intend. But good system leaders think about how they are operating in each of these dimensions, and reflect on the way they are impacting on others. Some of the most important elements of system leadership were reported in the ‘ways of being’ dimension, the importance of being calm, of being patient, of being generous.

These six ways offer a checklist for leaders at the (many) moments when they don’t know what to do next. So if you ever get into a situation when you don’t know what to do, a good leadership action is to stop and ask quietly:

  • What am I feeling – how are my values engaged?
  • What am I noticing?
  • What is the thinking needed now?
  • With whom do I need to strengthen relationships?
  • What is the action that is needed?
  • How do I need to be in this situation?

It works. Try it. And good luck.

Dr Sue Goss

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