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Solace blog

8th April 2016

Back to the Future?

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

So it’s standing room only at a Masterclass convened by the Solace Innovation and Commissioning Network. We are here to talk about Whole Systems Thinking, its application to commissioning and its role in innovation. The interest in the event reflects perhaps a little trumpeted shift in the consciousness of the sector. After a couple of decades characterised by approaches that might have seemed quite reductionist at times (PI’s for everything, inspectorate driven prescriptions for how to do things and an unsubtle, even naïve, approach to change in which everything is up
front and open and everyone feels happy and fully informed throughout), there is seemingly a new willingness to embrace complexity, to reflect on the evidenced effectiveness of our actions rather than just carry on with what ‘should’ work and to acknowledge our role as systems leaders.

Devolution (all skullduggery aside) is in many ways a return to systems thinking. Housing issues can rarely be effectively dealt with by one Council, transport almost never. Skills, health and social care all require new levels of understanding to determine what interventions will have an impact. If the Treasury and local Councils are betting the farm on collaboration to deliver better results over a long time period then the case for doing so necessarily takes us into complexity and into modelling the behaviour of a whole system over time. The keystone of just about every devolution deal, and what Manchester had the foresight to start working on some years ago, is a benefits realisation framework that models the impact of actions and the likely costs and benefits for each agency across a sub-region.

For Councils tied to milestones and earn back deals to repay substantial borrowing, monitoring, and understanding how their plans are really progressing and actually delivering may challenge linear thinking and threaten the life expectancy of many sacred cows for years to come.

“Isn’t this like going back to the 80’s?” asks one participant. It is a moment. A brief hush descends, my grandmother used to call it “angels passing”. Or perhaps it was a ghost. The ghost of an era where we debated complexity and chaos, where butterflies flapping their wings in America caused Tsunami’s in China, and in the face of it all, we didn’t really know what to do.

Two contributions, in particular, demonstrated that perhaps we are in a better place, able to escape the strictures of oversimplification without getting lost. Each in their own way provided a different perspective on how to understand complex systems and intervene positively in them.

Simon White, DCS in Worcestershire talked from the heart about leadership in broken systems, how to challenge self-defeating ways of thinking and how to give hope to enable staff to take appropriate risks again. Sarah Henry, Head of Intelligence and Performance in Manchester, contrastingly but just as effectively talked about the power of big data.

“We used to explain the past, then it was the present, now we predict the future.” At a macro level, data and evidence have made the big devolution deal possible, and also driven the way services are commissioned in small but significant ways. By really engaging with jobseekers we learn ‘surprising’ but actually, entirely obvious things that may help people back to work rather than attending their fifth CV writing course, things like bereavement counselling, and dentistry. Big data and systems leadership show us that by embracing complexity what emerges is not chaos but
simplicity, it seems like we may be in a new place.

By Max Wide, Strategic Director of Business Change, Bristol City Council and Solace Spokesperson on Innovation and Commissioning