Archive for Thinking about decision-making and change

Plan with your enemies not your friends

OK, maybe ‘enemy’ is the wrong word – just something to get a good headline. Maybe we are talking about a particular kind of opponent: opponents in ways of thinking; those who see the world from a totally different, diametrically-opposed viewpoint. Read more

Expert Observation: More to it than meets the eye?

Studying people is fundamental to changing society for the better. It is important to understand how and why different people behave as they do; getting a sense of human patterns and motivations. Within social studies this is often approached using questionnaires or interviews. Rather than attempting to get at beliefs, values, attitudes via self-reporting, with all its issues of truthfulness etc, another method is the direct observation of people’s actions and behaviours and to use these to work back towards imputed attitudes and beliefs.

Observation, here, is more than the spontaneous, passive observing of things (although there is a useful role for that). It is, rather, the active, deliberate observation of those things that are the focus of enquiry at the time.

Even in casual everyday observing, not everything can be noticed all the time. The brain continuously selects, isolates, focuses, overlooks. With deliberate observation, much of that sifting and sorting of what is important has already been done through some pre-observation thinking and decision-making. By having a clear observation framework perception is sharpened in particular ways. The researcher is attuned to notice the specific features under observation so that what might be of particular interest stands out within the wider mass of things seen.

This article looks at some of the features of this ‘expert’ observation and describes one very simple practice exercise where observation was used to explore the various uses of park areas. Read more

What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?


The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out  proposed mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here: Trojan Horse lessons


In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get to where it wants to be?

The Sustainable Community Strategy for Birmingham (UK) has as its goal that, by 2026, the city will demonstrably be a good place to live, to work and to bring up children. The strategy sets out some broad ways forward but on the surface these can look quite similar to the existing plans for progress that are not taking the city forward at the scale and pace necessary to achieve that goal.

In order to get to where it has set the marker down, the city as a whole (whatever that may mean in practice) will need to adopt some changes to the ways that certain things – progress; outcomes; systems; engagement; diversity of views etc – are thought about. Birmingham knows that it can improve such things by understanding them better.

All of this raises the question of how a city (as a learning, developing system) learns to change by changing the ways that puzzles are conceptualised and acted upon. What are the most-likely-to-succeed approaches for the future? What more does such a city need to know and understand if it is to attain the aim of being a flourishing, connected, diverse, sustainable community by 2026?

This is not unique to Birmingham. Other cities want to make similar progress. The thinking that follows may equally well also apply at the level of towns, organisations, networks and so on.

Given the complex nature of developments, the scale of changes to be made, the pace at which many interconnecting things need to happen at the same time, and the shifting nature of local, national and global contexts there is a sense that thinking ways forward is unlikely to be simply linear and definitive. Planning, innovating and moderating ways of being and ways of doing things may be much more of an unfolding exploration. It may not be adequate to sketch out grand-scale inflexible pathways. There may need to be more reliance put on modest, contingent, conditional and interpretative sets of changes to ensure progress continues to be made with a larger, looser but equally robust framework that is able to sustain progress year-on-year towards the desired state of things.

Reflecting back on system-changes that have been more or less successful in the city over recent years there are a number of understandings that can be clustered in different ways so that emerging key lines of influence might be glimpsed. From the work done in Birmingham it seems that there may be at least five such lines of influence. These are:

  • The understandings of middle managers
  • The capacity to harvest past learnings and make sense (and sensible use) of them
  • The extent to which a variety of views are able to count within the drive for system-wide change
  • The abilities to maximise leverages that can move things along from being plans to being impacts and further on to being real changes in outcomes of the lives of people
  • The various understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations ..

It is quite feasible that there could be other ways of articulating the interplays between various fragments of understanding, and come up with a different set of key influences. Nor are the five listed above discrete lines of thought. They are proposed here on a ‘good enough for now’ basis in order to take the exploration forward. Each is unravelled in turn.

The understandings of middle managers

  • There are likely to be expectations that managers at a number of levels will have increased freedoms and flexibilities (as opposed to fixed centrally-managed roles) in ways that bring them into areas that are new and sometimes ambiguous. The way managers view their roles determines the ways they feel able to act in practice.
  • There is already an increased focus on outcomes and accountabilities at the same time as an integration of efforts that de-emphasises notions of ‘being the lead for’, single-agency ownership of issues, traditional structures (of management or governance) etc.. This often requires a new mindset about what managers are there for and how they might operate in a changing, adapting world.
  • There is no shortage of data : it comes thicker and faster than ever before. Frontline staff are expected to both collect and use a wide range of information, with more and more information being fed to middle managers. The managers’ wider understandings of the bigger picture, their operating principles and values, determine how they make use of this information, the frameworks they use to create understandable stories from it, and how the information becomes good professional knowledge that can guide decisions about future paths to take or better deployment of reducing resources.
  • Key managers have direct responsibilities for the welfare of staff and the maintenance of routines (and, ultimately, for demonstrating the need for their own continued employment). This can often lead to situations where parts of the system try to preserve the problems to which they are (or have been in the past) the solution.
  • In a rapidly changing world where solutions often are expected to be more complex or sophisticated, managers are increasingly expected to respond rapidly, flexibly, in responsive ways that can still be shown to be policy-led. At the same time these managers may still be operating in a system that has a legacy of being hierarchical, with its share of silos, and with fixed expectations of how things are to be done.
  • Middle managers may increasingly be seen as responsible for bringing about change (as opposed to their old role of service delivery) may need a different vocabulary or narrative which places less emphasis on reporting ‘things we do’ and more emphasis on reporting the changes made, the journey so far, the distance still to travel, how best to ‘get there’.
  • There are issues for managers around local/central rationalities: who decides what is the best thing to do, the sense of purpose behind decisions to be made, where those views come from, and so on. It is unrealistic maybe to assume that there is coherence to all of this: that everyone shares the same perspectives, or that everyone talks or acts in the same ways when constructing meaning within the daily realities of professional activity.
  • There are balances to be struck by managers between the extent to which their job is to support learning/understanding that takes place vertically (reporting up/ disseminating down) and the extent to which learning/understandings might occur horizontally (through sharing knowledge across communities of practitioners , challenging each other’s understandings). There are increasing attempts to understand the dilemmas, pressures and rewards that are a feature of the ‘swampy lowlands’ of professional practices; and attempts to reconcile the notions of practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice.

The capabilities of the system to harness and make use of learning

  • Systems are, to a degree, unpredictable; time may be needed to see how things unfold and yet the pressure is on to manage emails/meetings etc in rapid, short-focus ways. At the same time much of the available information may appear contestable, ambiguous, even contradictory: things may be less clear cut than seemed to be the case in past years. Key individuals may need to develop new skills in in managing contradiction and lack of clarity.
  • In order to get the best understanding from information there may be a need to take intelligent overviews, to have interrogative frameworks, to exert critical thinking, and to allow time and space for various explorations to take place within the pressures to take things forward.
  • Within a drive to streamline decision-making and to provide quicker responses there is also a need to keep more people within knowledge-loops, allowing for more discussion that captures the variety of perspectives – implying a greater use of time-limited, highly focused, thinktank, guided conversations.
  • Increasingly communications need to be across boundaries or in contexts where no formal boundaries exist. In these situations normal rules may not apply and people may operate much more via informal self-arranged subsystems that develop their own theoretical assumptions about what is possible.
  • Whilst there is an increased emphasis on evidence-based practice and outcomes-based planning there is often a lack of agreed understandings about what brings about change in particular outcomes, about how to translate robust knowledge into effective practices, and how the system may best operate in order to foster the implementation of change.

The ability to maximise leverages to move from planning intent, to practical impact, to shifts in outcomes in people’s lives

  • Whilst there has been an increased emphasis on securing planned outcomes there has been less practical demonstration of the mechanisms that move from policy to planning frameworks to action schedules for implementation of things likely to shift outcomes at the (almost industrial) pace and scale needed.
  • There have been strong parallel narratives around closing achievement gaps, health gaps etc – but slower progress in achieving closure of such gaps across the board through system-wide improvements. The same issues stay on the to-do agenda with little forward momentum.
  • Action plans tend to be at the level of lists of activities/ projects/ interventions or, occasionally, at the level of overarching frameworks. There is less articulation of the relationships between strategic frameworks, implemented activities and secured quantifiable improvements in outcomes. Where such descriptions are being put in place these tend to be linear, boxed, single-action rather than reflecting that things may emerge, that patterns may change, and that things may be reliant on other things being in place.

Understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations etc

  • Much use has been made of the idea of value for money but without any clear explanations of value, this tends to be mostly judgements about money. There is increased concern for Public Value or Social Value. This puts more of an emphasis on attempting to quantify the less tangible notions of Use or Value, when determining practical ways forward.
  • Where people are concerned with systems approaches and interagency/partnership approaches it is sometimes easier to be unclear about which part of the system is responsible for securing which set of changes within the whole forward enterprise. Even less clear is where any accountabilities may lie (To direct managers? To higher-level governance arrangements? To the beneficiaries of proposed changes? To the wider public in general?). Accountabilities and responsibilities get lost within dotted lines and overlapping boxes, or within shared plans etc.. Accountabilities are not always clear (for what; by whom, by when etc) around ensuring that changes occur at the scale and pace necessary to ensure substantial progress on key priorities.

Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?

Following on the thinking from previous posts:

If cities are important (If only because more than 60% of the UK population now live in cities), are they all important in the same ways? There are qualitative differences between London (as capital city, federation of a number of small boroughs, making a lot of ‘noise’? within national debates etc); and cities with a strong industrial heritage (Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry etc); maritime/seaboard cities (Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle); small ecclesiastical/academic cities (York, Durham, Cambridge, Oxford etc); recently nominated cities, and so on. Cities have, variously, claimed status for themselves as a learning city, or a resilient city, or a connected city. From the lines of thought up to now I would also add Flourishing City as the status that many cities are aspiring to be, even if this not yet being claimed in those terms.

From the various lines of thought described in my previous post, a number of overlapping elements recur time and again as key factors. These can be listed and arranged in different ways to create ‘constellations’ of meaning. Other people may come up with their own slightly different set of aspects, and arrange things in somewhat different arrangements. Below is mine.

Although it is set out (far ease of reading?) as a list it is seen as far more intra-connected since the components can be constructed together in different ways. It is intended more as a flexible lens/framework through which cities might be considered rather than as a definitive checklist. (I would also extend this beyond cities, and suggest that it is possible to use the same kind of framework to look at Organisations or Networks or Communities or Neighbourhoods or Families etc.

Aspects of a flourishing place/organisation/network:
Sets out a moral purpose; there is meaning in what is done; promotes a compelling vision of where want to get to
Is aware of values/goals; uses agreed values as basis for decisions
Acts ethically; confronts wrongdoing; challenges bias and intolerance; deals with conflict and barriers
Can go out on a limb; able to express unpopular views
Sets challenging aspirations; driven to meet outcomes; results focused; maintains commitment/purpose
Asks why things aren’t done differently; approach involves querying and puzzling
Uses complex strategies without over-complicating things
Connects disparate things; seeing potential for linkages (up/down/across)
Looks outwards as well as inwards; interested in broader context
Observes what is going on in practice; watching the realities
Fosters active engagement with people, ideas and events – in ways that are authentic
Seeks positive relationships/interactions; collaboration; linking up with others; manages relationships with peer agencies
Feels part of a wider network/community of others; connecting with others (family, friends, colleagues); being in touch with people
Sees that today’s right answer may be wrong for tomorrow; recognises need for change
Generates new ideas; can put ideas into practice; adapts responses as new circumstances emerge; acts like a creative brain
Shows an interest in things/in the world. Passionately curious re why things work the way they do; how can be improved; wants to know other people’s stories. Relentlessly questioning; being curious; remarking on the unusual
Stays up-to-date; maintains currency in thinking/knowledge
Looks for information that can help improve things
Is open to new perspectives/viewpoints; sees changes emerging; prepares for change
Reflects on past experiences; Learns from experience; open to feedback
Learns from differences/ambiguities/gaps; Encourages debate and discussion; promotes conversations-of-equals
Is flexible in how events are seen/interpreted; sensitive to other viewpoints
Experiments; enjoys fiddling about to see what works
Operates in uncertainty; calculated risk-taking
Tries new things; rediscovering old interests; exploring/ formulating
Understands how people work; how to get best from self/others; Seeks opportunities to raise skills of others; Creates culture in which people can thrive
Listens well; picks up clues
Meets commitments; keeps promises
Leads by example; takes bulk of responsibilities
Has adequate self-determination and assertiveness; has presence, presents self with confidence and assurance
Has a degree of flow/mastery; has vitality about what is done
Shows grit, stickability, self-discipline
Wants (and gives) clarity, precision, succinctness
Is good at decision-making; decisive despite uncertainties and pressure; thinks clearly; organised; manages multiple demands
Demonstrates resilience; coping skills. Embraces adversity with a track record of overcoming it; strong work ethic
Stays composed, positive, unflappable; relaxed, calmness; manages impulses, avoids over-reaction
Handles difficult situations well; looks for mutually beneficial outcomes
Is aware of own strengths/weaknesses; key strengths are used to good effect every day
Is aware of the world and how reacting to world events is influenced by collective feelings
Savours the moment; appreciating what matters
Shows optimism; spreads positive emotions; cheerful, smiles, thanks others in genuine ways
Is unselfconscious about doing unsolicited acts of kindness for others; readily volunteers
Takes on new challenges/different responsibilities
Offers advice, feedback, coaching to others
Makes sacrifices for the greater good

This thinking is currently being developed further (particularly with the colleague Andrew Harrison) and additional thinking will be set out here and elsewhere in the near future. We hope that others will comment as one way of contributing to the thinking.

Flourishing neighbourhoods: what contribution can learning make?

One key concern in the regeneration of Birmingham over recent years has been that of creating economic prosperity for residents whilst also creating flourishing neighbourhoods.

These flourishing neighbourhoods are seen as small localities, each with its own distinct sense of place; where people are relatively happy to live; where public and private services are well delivered; where there is a strong network of activity and were residents feel that they have some degree of influence over their lives and there is a sense of hope for a positive future.

A number of managers from different agencies, each with their own differing concern for neighbourhood renewal in Birmingham, explored what a flourishing neighbourhood might look like in terms of learning, and established what data might be needed to substantiate this.

A neighbourhood might be considered to be flourishing, in terms of learning, when:

There are large numbers of families in which children are given an early learning start:

  • children have access to high quality learning experiences 0-3, in the home, in the community and in early learning organisations
  • there are sufficient pre-school childcare places, including well-resourced, well- nursery places for all children wishing them (age 3-5)
  • libraries and other community venues are well equipped and welcoming to families with children 0-5
  • additional support is available to specific groups and families (such as those in hostels; refugee/asylum seeking families; those wanting to develop bilingual skills in young children; those in need of parenting support or advice; young children in public care etc)
  • children enter school with adequate levels of language, literacy and a sense of number – as well as good emotional, social and behavioural skills.

There is high quality primary and secondary education available to young people who live in the neighbourhood

  • there are sufficient school places in, or close to, the locality
  • schools are reported as being of high quality, by internal and external reviews
  • pupils readily attend school and are happy in schools which are secure, attractive and welcoming
  • schools are well staffed, and have good resources and facilities across the curriculum
  • schools act as reliable information, access and referral routes to other opportunities and services
  • parents are able to support their children’s learning

There are interesting opportunities available out of schools:

  • there is a variety of well used youth opportunities re leisure, art, sport, technology, citizenship, culture etc
  • specialist 1:1 or small group support services exist for young people
  • young people are involved in local decision-making
  • libraries, supplementary schools etc are linked to mainstream schools and are well-equipped and well-staffed
  • there is good access to ICT facilities in the home and in the community
  • there are supported opportunities re mentoring, challenge, taking on community roles – by, and for, young people

There are high levels of skills achievement across all groups (11-25)

  • young people have access to significance, being able to define and implement a valuable set of activities for themselves
  • there are no substantial gaps in achievement levels between different groups
  • achievement rates at 11, 16, 19 are relatively high
  • there are high proportions of people qualified at level 3 and level 4
  • young people needing additional support know who to turn to
  • young people make the transition from learning at 14 to continuing learning, in work training etc by age 19
  • there are high levels of functional literacy, language, numeracy and ICT skills post-16

There are sufficient, appropriate opportunities to continue learning post-16

  • libraries and adult learning venues are well staffed and well stocked with appropriate materials
  • learning is available via a variety of loosely-linked organisations; in a variety of forms; and via a range if organisations
  • next-step learning is accessible in terms of place, time, by ICT etc
  • there are local training opportunities for adults wishing to take on community roles or be involved in community activities
  • there are people who are sufficiently motivated about learning, that they act as learning advocates
  • there is readily available information about learning opportunities
  • there are ways of learning that can happen anywhere/anytime
  • there are wide opportunities for families to learn together at a range of community sites

Throughout the neighbourhood there is an environment rich in stimulation and opportunity

  • good use is made of media and ICT, for own-time learning
  • people seek out opportunities for change and improvement; people take responsibility for own learning
  • there are openings for creativity and problem solving
  • area looks beyond the immediate, tries to get a sense of the bigger picture
  • homes and community venues are seen as places that stimulate learning
  • there are opportunities (for all ages) to learn to be healthy, to be safe, to be ‘green’, to be involved, to be employable etc
  • learning is related to art, sport, culture, spirituality, academic knowledge etc
  • organisations in the area link up to support learning
  • there is easy local access to the wider sets of social resources

There is a valuing of learning and of the variety of cultures

  • there is promotion of learning as well as courses, programmes, and groups
  • ‘achievement for all’ is celebrated
  • there is an expectation that provision will be high quality
  • each learning opportunity is strongly able to create a further desire to learn
  • draws on resources within different sectors; reflects a diversity of cultures and traditions
  • learning is seen as a valuable tool – as a solution not a problem
  • people learn from each other and see themselves as having something to teach others

The above focused on the links between learning and flourishing at the neighbourhood level. There was acknowledgement that there are other factors associated with Flourishing (not least around employment, income, occupation etc) and that some of the driving influences operate at the broader city or national level. At the same time the development of this potential framework was helpful in a number of ways:

  • to feed into discussions about measurement of progress towards flourishing neighbourhoods (not only in terms of contributing to Birmingham as a learning city, but also contributing to the wider considerations of Birmingham as a safe place, an environmentally sustainable place, a healthy place, an economically secure place, and a place with good housing and transport etc).
  • to advise local decision-makers about the best investments of local development money
  • to feed into local planning mechanisms, in terms of what are the puzzles (in terms of learning) for each area and what might the solutions be.

Work and Wellbeing: some recent UK policy approaches

This article looks at some of the interrelationships between health, wellbeing, disability, employment and support. It is a brief overview of some aspects and, by no means, the definitive summary of all there is to say on these complex issues. It was produced as part-contribution to a conference in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada in May 2011.

The paper looks at some of the positive effects  being in work, some changing perspectives and expectations, some of the context for adults with mental health difficulties, some of the context for adults with learning difficulties/disabilities, some of the things that help adults get (and stay) in work, and ends with a summary of some of the changes to the UK system.

The paper can be downloaded here: Wellbeing and employment

Some thoughts on the approach to change

Over the years I have been involved in various larger-scale programmes meant to change the ways that services get provided in a big and complex city. As part of the ongoing evaluation of one of these, the partnership I worked through was challenged to make more explicit its change-model. If it was bringing about system-wide change, how did it think it was it doing it? There seemed to be four interconnecting strands.

Although these applied at the whole-partnership level there may be value in looking at any use the tools listed may have in other contexts (eg at the level of a single organisation; within a family, at the personal interactions level) changing the wording slightly to match each context.

1. Making use of factors influencing for change

There was an early recognition that the partnership was being established at a time of rapid change and that it would not be able to work in isolation. It would need to be highly alert to its environment. By its very nature it was driven by, and in turn added momentum to, the planning processes within the several major service provider agencies in the city each of which had its own set of agendas and priorities outside of coming together as partners to focus on one specific set of developments. The partnership arrangements were established at a time of rapid national policy change and was expected to forge a way forward through the national changes that would have impacts across the area. The partners, collectively, needed to be rapidly responsive to (and able to feed back into) shifting national and local developments.

There was a shift to be made in the way that the partner agencies worked. All of them were traditional/ formal/ , managerial organisations used to fixed annual planning cycles, with budgets allocated annually against predetermined headings. Responding in more agile ways as contexts changed around them would imply a different way of doing things that might not sit easily with their established routines.

Tools used:

  • Turning any national and local reviews, reports and evaluations into a checklist of action points re changes to be made within partner agencies’ own activities
  • Regularly scanning horizons for changes and updating (e.g. checking internet updates; ensuring local receipt of key documents; securing appropriate involvement in national and local key groups)
  • Reading the waves; knowing what is coming re changes in local and national arrangements and strategies; interpreting wider trends for the local context, allowing partners to be in the right place when waves of change swept across the area.
  • Keeping some capacity for rapid reaction and repositioning of resources; not tying everything up so tightly that agility became impossible
  • Covering changed emphases through short term flexible team attachments; having a strong centrally-directed project-development approach
  • Close financial monitoring and continuous redeployment of resources to best effect
  • Setting times for outcome/vision focusing, ‘Where was it we were supposed to be getting to?’; identifying ‘distance still to be travelled’
  • Target setting, not as tick-box items that might get artificially met but as aspirations to be collectively achieved in terms of real changes to services or improvements in outcomes for groups of people; having an approach to action planning that was flexible and adaptable as the year went on

2. Managing change

The reasons the various agencies had agreed to work in partnership was partly driven by the availability of some shared resources (although previous models had seen one agency simply holding all the money and asking the others to join them in a required list of partners but not playing any active role after that), but mostly because of a shared commitment early on that things in the city needed to be changed and that this could only be done in collaboration, if real structural progress was to be made over the long term. There was a moral dimension as well as a pragmatic one.

Some necessary early principles were worked on:

The need to reiterate a common, consistent, transparent purpose; keeping to the same overall aim of changing the ways that mainstream services operate

Consistent leadership: pushing for change whilst appreciating the constraints that different agencies were working with

Repeated messages: establishing a culture of change that all could agree with

Strategic objectives: identifying a small number of key levers of change and using these as a framework for agreeing development activities year on year

Steerage: actively engaging particular senior managers from partners, those with the power to immediately change things within their own organisation

Flexible development team, not seconded to the partnership but continuing to work within their home organisation, but able to be brought together as necessary to focus on specific common issues: people with the ability to directly operationalise change back on the ground

Retaining sufficient/adequate resources to be able to respond when opportunities arise to push changes through ; includes keeping any central infrastructure/expenditure as small as possible so resources aren’t spent on internal processes

Ensuring reputation is built up through practice rather than through promotions (More of a ‘Get down to work’ focus than over-concern with high profile launches/publicity)

Recognising the respective roles both of partners and of the partnership ways of working; working in ways to avoid the development of boundary wars between partners by stressing the common cause

Tools used:

  • Early agreement of key principles and systems
  • Use of key intermediaries from partners, loosely attached as a network of knowledgeable practitioners/developers able to focus on partnership’s objectives from within the day-to-day work of their own organisation
  • Annual business planning, in shifting context – identifies the agreed progress to be made each year
  • Appraisal of development proposals by someone other than the organisation responsible for delivery
  • Partnership represented within key steering groups/ planning groups -able to influence things at their early stages of developments
  • Communications promote the work of partners (as much as promoting the partnership) keeping a focus on broad developments
  • Partnership level reviews undertaken of various aspects re strategic objectives. Partnership mechanisms reviewed annually
  • Early system-compliance work done to ensure that partners aren’t distracted by having to constantly do later remedial work

3. Leverage on Partners

The partnership was set up to operate through its partners rather than take on a high-profile up-front role for itself. This was quite different from previous partnership arrangements which had spent energy and resources on having their own building, their own dedicated large team of staff, their own separate structures, and a clear identity that others were expected to subscribe to etc. The partnership referred to here was to remain in the background, to be more of a way of operating rather than a visible structure, yet have powerful leverage on the plans and actions of the varied partners. This required some mechanisms for influencing partner organisations at a number of levels. This would entail leverage on the content of organisational plans; but would also mean exerting some leverage on the style of planning: taking organisations away from fixed annual planning, action charts etc towards looser, more flexible, more uncertain ways of aiming to bring about widespread changes to mainstream Activities.

Through a 3 level matrix of influence with partners (strategy level;

management level and doing level), the partnership was able to impact on:

Staffing capacity for change within partners

Leadership for change within partners

Culture/language of change within partners

Inter-relationships between partners

Quality of planning within partners

Effectiveness of operational mechanisms within partners

Use of partners’ own resources for development

Quality standards in partners’ own provider networks

Establishing and maintaining the reputation of partners i.e. partners’ capacity to implement change

Tools used:

  • Annual agreements between partners re the next-steps changes and each agency’s contribution to these developments (and how feasible and cost effective these were)
  • Quarterly monitoring of progress to keep momentum going; to identify any potential underspend for reallocation
  • Tracking back to identify the remaining ‘gap to outcome’, stress ‘getting there’ re strategic objectives
  • Working back from target outcomes – focus on numbers still to be worked with in order to get whole-system progress; no falling back on small-scale projects when things get difficult
  • ‘At the right time’ conversations across sets of people who are the best ones to focus on a specific issue, taking a task-and-finish approach. Few regularly scheduled meetings other than the minimum number needed for good governance.
  • Reviews at level of broad developments, each covering a range of developments within different agencies
  • Whole-system querying rather than worrying about small activity detail
  • Central structures kept small, and things done right, so that energies can go on futures-thinking

4. Key phrases are used to establish working culture

Most of the agencies’ core role was to ensure the effective delivery of their own programmes (at certain quality standards) for target client groups.

‘Changing the system’ needed a different way of thinking, and work needed to be done via the Partnership re thinking for change. This required a language for change, in the sense of a set of frequently repeated phrases used between partners to establish a culture:

being well positioned in shifting landscapes

keeping stable relationships with each partner, even where relationships between partners are not strong

the basic operating rules are well known, and complied with

promoting change as opportunity as well as necessity

communicating a compelling purpose for change – keeping an eye on ‘What’s it all for?’

inspiring trust, through behaviours – ‘This is the way we do things, isn’t it?’

adequate resources, deployed in agreed framework; ensuring that money doesn’t become the main discussion. Money (once adequate) is not as important as having properly planned ways forward

Tools used:

  • Rehearsing the track record of changes brought about – consolidating the success of how far we have come together
  • Repeated emphasis on work through the partners- it’s not about the partnership as a separate entity
  • Emphasis on getting there; descriptions of ‘How will we know when we’ve got there?’; focus on distance still to go in terms of desired outcomes for groups of people (even if the exact direction and speed of travel remained relatively uncertain).
  • Strategies clear yet flexible to use in context: key thrust kept to consistently repeated strategic objectives/purposes – not getting bogged down in fine detail of activity
  • Bigger picture regularly rehearsed: ‘What was it we were supposed to be doing; How does it all fit together?’
  • Support collaboration across agencies; language is that of joint and collaborative etc with dampening down language of fragmented and competitive
  • Right mix of leadership and management; linkage between bigger directional statements and day-to-day operational statements. Not all vague intents.
  • Keeping ‘progress’ the topic of discussions/meetings/plans/reports rather than letting agendas become dominated by a focus only on the money or procedures.
  • Critical friend role – challenge and support; stressing partnership not as an organisation, or as funding mechanisms  but as a function that supports organisations re change, but also pushes them to do that bit more.

This has outlined the responses when challenged to make more explicit our approach to bringing about system-wide change, across a range of partner agencies’ service deliveries, within a large and complex city through joint working across several years. It tries to capture the approaches taken as well as highlighting some of the specific mechanisms/tools that were consistently applied in order to maintain credible momentum for change.