How To Keep Focussed (And Remain Sane) In A World Of Complex Problems

In our heart, we know the solution does not lie in reforming silo by silo but in organizing our silos the way people organize their lives, so that the neighbourhood becomes our primary unit of analysis and change – Cormac Russell

I’ve spent two days this week with both the Connected Places Catapult in London and the Energy Systems Catapult in Birmingham. I’ve had long conversations about climate change, automation, the ageing society, housing shortages and technological disruption. And that’s before we got to health inequality, crime or poverty.

My brain is a little fried. 

We are faced with countless wicked problems in the world—issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

And yet right now as I write this there’s a politician on my TV claiming they’ll have ‘solved’ four or five of these by 2030. Good luck with that.

In truth every single one of this intractable problems will affect our organisations to some degree. How do we respond without going bankrupt (or insane) in the process?

First of all – let’s take a deep breath before we launch any new initiatives.

Earlier in the week I learned that for all the millions spent on smart metering and fuel initiatives precisely nothing has changed in our behaviours. We still use the same amount of fuel.

It’s valuable to look at the outcomes we are getting before launching something new.

The National Health Service we are told is the world’s best healthcare system.  Yet the NHS has a poor record on one fairly important indicator – actually keeping people alive.

We often hear that housing associations prevent homelessness , but in the 50 odd years since Cathy Come Home rough sleeping has increased from about 965 people each night to over 4000.

We have a ‘world class legal system’,  but most of our prisons are overcrowded.  By contrast the Netherlands has a shortage of prisoners. 

How can it be that so many sectors face such crisis at exactly the same time. Is it rising demand? Lack or resources? Or the impact of years of austerity?

Or is it something more fundamental. A deeper design flaw.

Perhaps we are too keen on firing magical silver bullets – that look like attractive ways to solve deeper problems.

As Chris Bolton has written – in organisational life the term Silver Bullet has come to mean anything new that can miraculously solve difficult problems. But as he says silver bullets should actually be called Silver Boomerangs, because they fail to address the problem and keep coming back. How to avoid them? Well, I’m with Chris , if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

My reflections on this week is to return to themes that I, and many others, have written about before.

How much of our impact across the social sector is diluted by our lack of connectedness?

How much of our impact is wasted through by-passing the process of facilitating citizen-led discovery, connecting, and mobilisation? 

When all of the bullets are being fired by disconnected organisations at disconnected individuals it’s hardly surprising that most of them miss their target.

Why don’t we have seamless health, care and housing that isn’t compartmentalised, siloed and rationed across disparate organisations?

And how much of our collective resource is tied up in back office ‘management’ rather than pushing ourselves ever closer to the community?

What would it take to make such a radical shift?

In a provocative piece Adam Lent makes the case for a new law that would shift power from public institutions and into the hands of citizens. If institutions are reluctant to drop their paternalistic mind-set,  handing power and resource over to communities to solve their challenges themselves – why not force them to through legislation? 

Placing unconditional devolution and a duty to collaborate on local authorities and institutions may sound radical, but it shouldn’t be dismissed given the challenges we have.

Whether we legislate or not we need to see a transformation in leadership within our organisations. People simply aren’t prepared for a world requiring citizen led change. As I’ve written before, there are reasons for why we don’t collaborate, and our organisations are largely complicit with them.

To paraphrase Cormac  – it is time to awaken to the fact that we don’t have a health problem, nor a social care problem, nor a climate problem, nor a housing problem, we have a neighbourhood problem.

The worst two things you can do in a crisis is panic and throw money at the problem. Pausing, reflecting and doing some deep problem definition, could be the least exciting but most radical thing we could do right now.


 

Image via Straighten The Maze

If We Don’t Develop Different Relationships, We’ll Lose Our Legitimacy

If we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and waste the potential of the many ways they can have agency over what matters to them. If we do not continually, bravely work to build trust, we will lose the essential foundation for everything we do. – Civil Societies Futures

I’ve had a week of fascinating conversations, all linked by one theme, the apparent reluctance of many of our institutions to cede any sort of meaningful power and decision making to communities.

Part of the problem is the social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure. The entire premise relies on reaction.

When your business model is founded on profiting from being reactive – there is little incentive to change.

There’s also a very real question about skillsets and mindsets. During my conversation with Lizzie Spring it became apparent that at some point we shifted from entrepreneurial community based models (think: the birth of the social housing movement for example) to ones based on efficiency and the accumulation of wealth.

Necessarily this has forced organisations to be more ‘business like’ with career pathways for ‘professionals’.  It’s hardly surprising that communities feel organisations have become more distanced, remote and less accessible.

CHC Trust Presentation (1)

A couple of weeks ago a consortium of housing providers tweeted an animated GIF showing a lonely looking person peering out of a desolate block of flats. The tagline read something like ‘Housing Associations provide services to some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in the UK’.

What on earth are we trying to say? 

A number of tenants jumped on the tweet and pointed out – quite rightly – that it is the institutions themselves that are hard to reach not the people they serve. It was deleted by the following day.

It would be easy to write things like this off as the mistake of junior comms person but this attitude speaks of something far more fundamental: that organisations have become disconnected from their original purpose and are happy in their role as rescuers of people.

CHC Trust Presentation

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different. You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

A new report from Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert sets out a compelling case for a deep shift in public services based on a completely new relationship between citizen and state. This relationship rejects the hierarchical and transactional mindsets of traditional service models which all too often bypass people’s assets and capabilities.

It highlights the risk of seeing citizens only as atomised consumers – something the digital transformation zealots are actively encouraging. This consumerism only leads one way – to a growing sense of alienation and frustration with public services and the state.

The report goes on to state this isn’t inevitable. There is a huge opportunity to change.

CHC Trust Presentation (2)Our communities want change – and they know what’s not working. This appetite for power and influence is a once in a generation opportunity to reconnect with people and establish entirely new relationships.

We mustn’t all focus on housing the homeless. We mustn’t all focus on filling prisons or A+E departments. 

We have to move to a more preemptive model that builds on what is already there rather than seeing our organisations as curators of the worlds problems.

The conversations I’ve had this week, and the grassroots innovation that some organisations are fostering (notably in Wales), fill me with a lot of positivity.

The modern social entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for permission from regulators or consensus from their industry body. They aren’t bothered about awards or being seen at industry events. They never look at benchmarking. Many of them aren’t even paid or employed in the social sector.

They know that the way we have become organised is dysfunctional – and they are forging ahead with relationships first and services last. They are working with communities as equals rather than as professionals.

They might not know what works yet but they are clear about one thing: not returning down a path to paternalism and disempowerment.

This incremental change can build and gather momentum – becoming massive change for the entire social sector.

No-one is stopping us.


 

This post has been inspired by conversations this week with Lizzie Spring, Shirley Ayres, Serena Jones, Chris Bolton, Ena Lloyd and Pritpal Tamber. Thanks guys

The full slide deck on rebuilding trust as featured at #CHCGOV19 is featured here 

If We Want Different Relationships, The Doing Must Be New And Different Too

There’s a reason some of our public services feel remote, unaccountable and uninterested.

Many of our organisations are products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Fixing other people’s problems keeps you very busy. It creates vast organisational empires and complex group structures.

On the other hand actually believing in what people can do for themselves means being brave enough to admit that you won’t always be needed. It means stepping back.

There’s a familiar theme across the social sector: demand for services is rising rapidly and citizens want more of a say in what those services look and feel like.

Whilst there’s a lot of noise about the former, there’s generally little focus on the opportunity of people wanting more influence and even control of the services they receive.

Adam Lent writing about the NHS 10 Year Plan points out the fatal flaw in organisational thinking :

There’s a belief that we can solve our own problems through structural, process and technological fixes rather than realizing the starting point for change is the creation of a completely different relationship with the communities we serve.

This obsession with tinkering with structure, process and ‘digital transformation’ is fundamentally limiting – when instead we should be looking at a much more radical redesign of services.

Adam points out that’s no sense of the need for a different and potentially difficult conversation between services and citizens about communities taking on more responsibility.  Importantly “there’s no self-analysis of how a hierarchical, status-obsessed culture militates against relationships based on empowerment and collaboration”.

This theme is picked up by Tony Stacey in Inside Housing. “Why isn’t the sector squirming right now?” he asks. Faced with serious charges about remoteness and a lack of trust the professional response seems to be: we’ll publish a new charter and make some tweaks to our code of governance.

As Tony says – this on its own is not going to rebuild trust in the way we need.

We explored this in a recent Bromford Lab workshop where people spoke of a more fundamental shift being required:

  • Democratising organisational strategy; enabling communities to have their say on how money should be spent.
  • Starting to talk in terms of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘engagement’.
  • Being openly competent and building trust through relationship building and positive action, not marketing and spin.
  • Visibly doing something with the feedback we get
  • Doing what we say we will do and being open and honest when we get it wrong.
  • Challenging how sectors work ‘as one’, and protect their own image.

Serious stuff. Which speaks more of a need of actually ceding power than it does of tinkering with policy.

Leading by Stepping Back 

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust and collaboration.

At Bromford we are trying to reshape our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

circles of support

We recently agreed a set of principles that underpin this kind of relationship and I think they are useful in outlining the shift organisations may need to make.

It requires a change in beliefs:

  • A belief in an adult-adult relationships. We invite feedback and challenge. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • A belief in the strengths and abilities of others.
  • Doing more listening than talking – asking the right questions and letting people think through their options rather than advising them.
  • We don’t judge other people’s choices.
  • We start with the individual and take an asset based approach to coaching which is personal to them
  • We don’t see people as needing to be fixed and we don’t collect problems.

Importantly this means we will always look to how existing strengths in the community can be built upon rather than providing services. We should never provide or support services that replace, control or overwhelm the skills within community.

When people opine that the ‘system is broken’, it’s a red flag that organisations have stepped too far forward. That they are becoming omnipresent in peoples lives.

Perhaps the answer lies in rebuilding organisations around communities, with a modern sense of trust and compassion.

You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different.