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 Connected Homeless

homeless2“It’s amazing how nice their Smartphones are. Some would actually go without food rather than lose their Smartphone.”

This quote is from a manager of a homelessness hostel.  Someone who has observed up close that, for the Connected Generation , staying in touch with their networks isn’t a luxury- it’s a necessity.

This isn’t something particularly new. Many reports have established that homeless people are making use of online networks to find shelter, food , and to keep in touch with relatives. And there are examples of the homeless starting online support groups as a very practical means of staying in touch with each other.

This week I helped out on a project to develop a digital hub and social network for the homeless. Mobile and social technology give us unprecedented opportunities to reach out to the most marginalised in society.

The research has identified that under 25 year old homeless are “highly proficient” in the use of social networks to maintain contact with relatives and friends. Additionally smartphone ownership amongst the single homeless is becoming pervasive “regardless of circumstance”.

But it also identifies that existing service provision often isn’t equipped to engage online.

 “Why can’t I be on Facebook? I have as much right to that as anyone else. Just because I am homeless does not mean that I don’t care about this stuff, you know? My family is on Facebook. My friends are on Facebook. People who care about me are on Facebook.”

Some of us will find the concept of homeless people spending time on social networks and possessing smartphones as puzzling.  Have they got their priorities right?

It’s because we can’t truly imagine the trauma of becoming homeless and the things we would hold onto when we have lost pretty much everything else.  For many people – the phone is no longer a phone. It’s a small computer containing address details of friends and family, photographs of loved ones , and diary notes describing important memories. It’s a very personal item.

Additionally many of us have a false perception of the cost of smartphones.  We often still think of it as expensive technology.  But you could be paying as little as £10 per month for a decent phone and data plan. That’s less than the price of a Costa Coffee each week. If you were homeless , which would you choose?

Many public service organisations don’t realise that they are missing out on huge opportunities to engage with groups that would have previously been classified “hard to reach”.  That’s not just the homeless , but ex-offenders, young people not in education or employment , people with multiple health needs. The list could go on.

But whilst it’s revealed that many of the homeless have access to the latest digital resources , the organisations and professionals they have to deal with sometimes do not. There is still a lack of access to Social Media.  As one person I spoke to commented, “How can I tailor services to the homeless on Facebook when Facebook is still seen as a time waster by my manager?”

Then there are repeated stories of internet access to “sensitive” sites being blocked. One IT Manager was quoted as saying the company firewall is “doing it’s job well ” by preventing access to a site on HIV prevention.

But even more common is the story of front line practitioners without the tools to do the job. Using basic phones that can’t text properly never mind access the web.

John Popham has written about this in his blog – correctly asserting that organisations who don’t equip staff are “sending people out to do their jobs with both hands tied behind their back.”

There is a huge irony here – the “hard to engage” are no longer the customers and service users.  It’s us. The service providers.

In 2012 – a Smartphone ceased to be a luxury. It’s not a gadget – it’s a completely new interface for staff and service users to engage , collaborate and design better services.

If the homeless get that , why don’t we?

%d bloggers like this: