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

The Problem With Professionals

Social progress is about the expansion of freedom, not the growth of services – Cormac Russell

Our digital networks, Twitter, in particular, are unparalleled listening tools.

I follow thousands of accounts, many organised into lists so I can get a sense of what’s going on in innovation, technology, health, housing – and the social sector generally.

Right now – I think there’s an interesting development happening that’s worthy of comment.

It’s this:
  • It appears organisations risk becoming more siloed. Whilst digital connects us in ways never before possible – whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.
  • This sense of disconnection is being made ever more visible – to the public, to patients, to tenants of social housing.

Social media isn’t the great leveller we thought it might be – but it’s certainly a great revealer.  It’s not shifting the balance of power — but it’s shining a torch on where power is held and how it behaves.

Dissonance

A couple of weeks ago I was on holiday flicking through Instagram. By complete chance, the algorithm had placed two photographs directly above each other.

  • Firstly was the imposing black husk of Grenfell Tower –  a monument to the dead and ignored.
  • Next to it was a picture from a sector awards ceremony, with a champagne bottle placed in front of some happy smiling ‘professionals’, celebrating how good we are at engaging communities.

I’m not naming the sector (you can probably guess) but it’s kind of irrelevant. We’ve all been there and done it, and celebrating success IS very important – but our digital behaviours are now being represented and recreated in contexts we are not even fully aware of.

The Problem With ‘Professionals’

What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.

This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens.

The professionalisation of the social sector – conducted in a such a public way -immediately places one group in a position of power and influence:

Empowering words, but disempowering actions.

The digital age is disrupting the accepted rules of discourse. No longer is a relationship solely between citizen and institution. What was once a fairly binary one to one relationship behind closed doors is now conducted within a much wider social and public context.

Engagement Versus Empowerment

Across the social sectors, practitioners and organisations play many different roles in the implementation and diffusion of the ideas and projects that they seek to promote. Some of these roles can serve to empower communities, while others can actively disempower them.

As Phil Murphy commented engagement isn’t a destination, it’s a route to empowerment. Services are sometimes a means to an end but rarely an end in themselves. There are few things that happen in communities that can’t be solved by communities themselves.

We can’t continue adopting a deficit mindset where the answer to everything is:

  • More Government intervention
  • More resources
  • More services
  • More ‘professionals’

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities.

If we continue to behave as a professionalised class – organising ourselves into deeper sector silos, talking to each other and forming policy on behalf of other people – we’ll bring about our own demise.

We’ll see a ‘Brexit-Effect’ – with the neglected and unheard looking for an opportunity to get back at those who had never listened to their grievances or invited them to the top-table.

People can clearly see where the power is held.

Sooner or later they’ll want to take some of it.

How To Design For Better Outcomes

Our job is to the mind the gap between the bureaucracy of our systems and the opportunities in our communities – Cormac Russell

Sometimes it’s preferable to pull the plug on a service before you see it collapse in front of your eyes.

A recent report says we are trapped in a reactive spending cycle on public services – with hospitals, schools, adult social care, and prisons all being propped up with cash bailouts ‘just to keep troubled services going’.

We instinctively know that the demand issues that are hitting the social sector are a result of complex problems. We know that billions of pounds may give some short-term relief but won’t tackle the root cause.

Are we destined to be forever reactive, or is there another way?

There’s a reason many of our organisations are waiting for the next crisis: they are designed that way.

  • Health services are designed to be reactive: only around 3% of national health sector budgets are currently spent on prevention.
  • Prisons are becoming overpopulated because the system is designed to accommodate overcrowding.
  • Housing and social care are designed to be difficult to access – with multiple providers of similar services.

Seemingly we get the outcomes we were designed to achieve. How can we design better ones?

As with so many things – the answer lies in going back to the start.

Clanmil Session (1)

At Bromford we’ve gone back to problem definition across every aspect of our organisation, dividing it into 31 unique service areas.

We started with a very simple task for each leader: define your service offer in just 150 words.

Not to describe what a service does, but to question why it even needs to exist in the first place.

 

Asking why a service needs to exist means you can pose all sorts of playful questions with the intention of shaping a better outcome.

What we found was many of our services have an imbalance between solving problems for the customer and solving problems for the business.

A good example is a reactive home repairs service, good for the customer (get stuff fixed relatively quickly), bad for the business (costly and a logistical nightmare).

That then leads you to explore new lines of inquiry – how could we coach customers to repair things themselves? How could we better balance reactive and planned services?

Across the social sector, reactive services aren’t just bad for business, they fundamentally disempower citizens.

Many well-intentioned services can replace, control or overwhelm the power of community to do things for themselves.

The social sector is a field of business that profits from past societal failure – providing episodic interventions when things go wrong rather than pre-emptive problem-solving.

Our role then to is to move beyond designing reactive outcomes and into designing for progress.

That means thinking about customer needs right at the start of the process – something that sounds obvious but just isn’t applied in practice. This lack of design thinking is exactly why people aren’t getting the sort of social outcomes they expect.

As citizens, we aren’t interested whether you’ve hit your targets or your service level standards. We don’t care about your transformation plans and your five year forward views.

We don’t care about your outcomes – only the progress your outcomes represent.

It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

“It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs…to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people.

 Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street”  – John Wade 

Lego-Superman-Batman-and-Wonder-Woman-Wallpaper

The typical story arc of the superhero is fairly predictable.

The journey to greatness begins with a background rooted in tragedy or potentially limiting life events:

  • The sudden death of family members (For example, Batman or Spiderman).
  • Being cast out alone into an unknown world where you are markedly different from everyone else (Superman or Thor). 
  • Troubled or abusive families triggering low self-esteem or even mental illness (Wonder Woman or Bruce Banner/The Hulk).

Having got us firmly rooting for the underdog the story unfolds, telling of the discovery of a hidden power or talent , and the difficulties of coming to terms with it.

This will be followed by a challenge to those newly found skills and a struggle against a society that wants to put the budding hero back in their place. This is usually represented through the introduction of a nemesis or villain. 

And finally the story will tell of the mastery of their talents – and an acknowledgement that with power comes a responsibility to help others fulfil their own potential.

I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were thinking about asset based community development when they created Superman in the 1930’s. However the stories they wrote and inspired always trod a familiar path: the most unlikely people developing skills that others thought them unworthy or incapable of.

The potential for people to do amazing things.

This belief in people is evident all too rarely in the public sector. Indeed – it seems we are almost hard wired to think of people as problems.

If you don’t believe me – take a look around.

Clearly too much of our time is focussed on seeing the flaws and shortcomings, zeroing in on gaps and insufficiencies in every person, relationship or situation.

This deficit based mindset has profound implications, not least economically. Our organisational cultures will become trained to perceive people as problems – which will further distance them from communities they serve.

Adopting an asset based approach would help us tackle these ‘problems’ very differently:

  • Older people have wonderful skills and wisdom that we can now tap into for longer than ever before.
  • Young people have remarkable talents and capabilities – different ones than we did at that age.
  • Social housing tenants are not a breed apart but have often had their aspirations crushed by a system that celebrates need and dependency.
  • The NHS is an institution that people would fight for – and there’s an army of community connectors available to help it operate more effectively.

Judging by the conversations I see going on – things are changing.

I see a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.

I see the role of social technology in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.

I see a move away from where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as the superhero capable of solving society’s problems.

As John says , there could be a hero living on your street – right now. It’s time for public services to reach out and begin their journey.

“Too many possibilities currently closed off to us would open up if we’re prepared to fail at being superheroes” – Cormac Russell

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