Outcomes are products of whole systems

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Dr Toby Lowe looks at how the voluntary sector can better respond to the complexity of the real world 

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6th April 2020 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

How can those who fund, commission and undertake social interventions respond better to the complexity of the real world, and real people’s lives?

This is our core question.

In 2017, we released a report which outlined a new approach. This report was called A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity. It challenged existing “new public management” approaches that are based on markets, managers and metrics. It identifies that in complex environments, outcomes are not “delivered” by organisations, they are products of whole systems – of hundreds of different factors all working together.

Over the last two years, we’ve been working alongside organisations who have adopted this complexity-informed approach, and those who have started to take this journey. Learning alongside these organisations we’ve learnt what responding to complexity requires

It means having:

The capacity to respond to variety –each person’s strengths and needs are different, and so standardised services don’t adequately meet these needs.

The ability to adapt to change – the context in which social interventions are undertaken constantly changes, from micro–scale changes in personal circumstances to large scale social change. This means that the nature of the challenges and ‘what works’ to meet those challenges is continually shifting. Social interventions must be able to continually adapt to reflect these changes.

The ability to shape the patterns of results in systems whose behaviour can’t be reliably predicted, and which no one controls. This demands collaboration and influencing, rather than command and control.

When the world is complex, this is what is required of us.

Dr Toby Lowe

Dr Toby Lowe

And from this, we’ve learnt what complexity-informed practice looks like, according to the people who are doing it. From listening to the way that people describe this approach, we’ve called it a Human, Learning, Systems (HLS) approach.

This means:

Being human to one another – responding to Variety, building relationships with empathy, using strengths-based approaches and offering Trust. It means liberating staff from misguided attempts to proceduralise what happens in good human relationships, and instead creating the context in which they can have good human relationships. It means creating public service which is bespoke by default.

Continuous learning and adaptation – in complex environments “what works” is continuously changing, as people’s strengths and needs change, and as the wider system changes around us. This means we can’t purchase standardised services, and expect them to solve problems. Instead, we must create the conditions in which those working can continuously learn and adapt. We must pay organisations to continuously learn and adapt.

Making our systems work better – Systems produce outcomes. So, to make better outcomes, we need to make our systems work better – systems in which people find it easy to co-ordinate and collaborate with one another. We call those who do this work “system stewards” – people who work on the “health of the system”, so that our systems work to serve the people who they are supposed to benefit.

These ideas are explored in a report called: Exploring the new world: practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity.

If you’re interested in this approach, we’d love to know what you think of the report. And in the meantime:

Be human to one another
Keep learning all the time
Look after the health of the system

And you can join a growing community of public and voluntary sector leaders who are exploring the same ideas, here.

Dr Toby Lowe is senior lecturer in public management at Newcastle Business School. He supported Volunteer Scotland at The Gathering earlier this year.