Perception is reality… a simple statement but one which has a powerful impact on the performance of teams and services. Where we focus our attention becomes reality for us and all too often, as Barry Oshry argues, we are focused on the wrong things – the soap opera or the side-show in our teams, partnerships and organisations; as a result performance suffers, sometimes dramatically, often without us being aware of it.
What do I mean? Some examples from my recent practice in Social Care…
● The service so caught up in its frustration and issues with its host organisation that a group of 60 staff couldn’t talk about the needs of the young people they provided a service for.
● The systems that produced three volumes of email communication over 11 months about the discharge of a high risk young offender – A problem which was sorted out the day before discharge by one telephone call by the young person’s solicitor in lieu of seeking a judicial review.
● The (fieldwork management) team grieving the departure of it’s service manager, unwilling to implement changes required for an OFSTED inspection.
What all these teams have in common was a habit, routine and perception which they were committed to as ‘real’ which was getting in the way of any kind of acceptable performance or outcome and that they were ‘stuck’ in.
How did we use a systems approach to support these situations and what was the outcome?
Barry Oshry’s work allows teams and services to develop ‘system sight’ and look at what they do as either part of the ‘side-show’ or ‘core purpose’. It was a shock to these teams when they stood back from their situations; they could see that they were almost entirely caught up in a side-show rather than core purpose.
How does a systems understanding help teams and services to change their approach?
Systems thinking sees 95% of the problems in the way the system is configured rather than people being to blame. John Seddon’s work – ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’ (1998) has three key concepts we applied to these situations:
● An understanding of failure demand (not sorting things out the first time so they come back)
● Looking at the relationship between transactions (the number of actions it takes to get something done)
● …and Flow (how work moves through a system)
We applied these ideas to our case studies and found that:
● The management of our ‘disinterested’ service was unavailable to lead because they were caught up in a complex financial system which generated lots of failure demand and transactions to achieve the flow required – a management of the cost of out of authority placements. We worked with them to simplify this system which had grown up over a number of years, freeing management time to lead the service.
● The planning for the discharge of a young offender was clearly generating huge failure demand and massive levels of transaction which failed to deliver the required flow, which could have been sorted at any time by a single phone call. We brought together the key managers of the system and agreed a new process to deal with failure demand and ensure flow, rehearsing this with young people about to be released.
● We brought the management team together to review the consequences to them and their staff of failing to engage with the new process. As a result we were able to put in place a new internal system with the management team which made sense to them and which met the new internal and external expectations.
What are the benefits?
It wasn’t, however just a case of sorting out the systems, there were other benefits, including restoring the reputation and career of key individuals who were being ‘blamed’ for the problems. Other benefits included:
● The disengaged service, once reorganised, gaining regional and national recognition for its work and innovation.
● The discharge process leading to a flexible use of accommodation provision to flexibly meet the needs of a wider range of difficult and vulnerable young people.
● The management team coming together as a team, moving on and passing their unannounced OFSTED inspection.
• Seddon, J (2008) ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: the failure of the reform regime…and manifesto for a better way’, Axminster, Triarchy Press.
• Oshry, B (1996) ‘Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organisational Life’, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
About the author
Brian Lawson has 20 years experience in the public and voluntary, community and faith sectors applying new science and complexity approaches to a range of challenges as a project and programme manager and consultant working primarily in the area of children and young people’s services.
As well as direct intervention support work, Consilient provides support for organisations, partnerships, companies, teams and individuals dealing with turbulent transitions to sustain successful change. Consilient Consulting