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A way of thinking about the purposes of partnership; and the partnership behaviours that are appropriate for each purpose.

Competition is again being promoted as the effective means of achieving social outcomes. But partnership is the real imperative - between private and public sectors, across public sectors, between professionals and lay people, and with citizens generally. Many people aspire to partnership working, yet it sometimes feels like the triumph of hope over experience.


Aren't we working as a system already?

Almost certainly, yes. Most people operate as part of several systems, and these change over time. At a formal level organisations churn away all the time with systems of accountability, planning, performance management and so on. You can think of this as a mechanical system with appropriate cogs and wheels operating as a well-oiled machine. You almost certainly operate as human systems as well, which don't feel like a machine, more like a constantly adapting, organic entity. That's what working whole systems is about - organisations as complex, adaptive living systems.

If I don't like the way thing's are working, what do I do?

It depends. If you see your team or organisation as part of a well-oiled machine then when it doesn't work as you would like you expect it needs re-designing or re-organising - better information systems, perhaps, or monitoring mechanisms or new planning structures.

If you see things operating as a living system then you recognise many interconnected parts that make up 'a whole' which is capable of adapting and evolving. Living systems of this sort organise themselves anyway, all the time. So, if you don't like the way the system is organising itself, you need to encourage it to behave in a different way. This means you have to intervene at a system-wide level because you know that concentrating on the parts alone won't deliver the change you are seeking. First, you need to find a way of 'making the system aware of itself'. This in turn will generate new connections and new information flows and these are what create possibilities for change.

Is this instead of traditional change methods?

No. It's not a substitute for other work processes, all of which have their place. It is an additional tool. We think it can be a means of engaging with long-standing policy-resistant problems, the ones which never seem to go away despite the efforts of highly motivated people 'on the ground'.

How do you engage people with power?

Whole system working is not an approach you can 'sell' if people are not curious. Our experience is that a lot of senior people are looking for new ways of operating and it feels more like tapping into the 'zeitgeist' than having to convince them. They seem to recognise that there is a lot going for this way of working because:

  • People are tired of 'quick fix' change
  • Financially constrained services have to find effective ways of working across boundaries to bake better impact
  • There is disillusion with short-term, project-led funding
  • However instinctively, there is a growing awareness of systems thinking and complexity
  • Effective partnership working is now an imperative, not an 'organiational hobby'
  • Involving lay people in developing services is a requirement
  • For good or ill, policy makers are interested in systems thinking.
  • Do we need to create a new system if we want to work differently?

    No, you don't need new parts but you almost certainly need new connections. If you want to work differently, you start with what you've got - the existing gene pool - but you have to think about how people reconnect differently. You do need to 'make the system aware of itself'. If a network of people has a shared purpose they have an identity, but they may not be consciously aware of it. When people recognise themselves as an interconnected system, opportunities increase and different questions have legitimacy - like 'how does my behaviour affect the behaviour of the system as a whole?'

    So what happens as a result?

    We have learnt to anticipate lots of new connections, energy and enthusiasm, shared experience, new working relationships, a rich network of contacts, a climate of improved cooperation and less likelihood of blame-shifting. These in turn create the possibilities for new ways of working. You can't predict what will happen locally because everywhere is different but examples include:

  • speeding up some things that are already in the pipeline (eg. funding for a one-stop-information-shop)
  • modifying existing work (eg altering an EU Information Technology project to focus on housing needs of older people)
  • pop-ups, things which could have happened anyway but seem to happen very easily as a result of new connections and understanding (eg. two agencies discovering they were developing similar schemes and deciding to collaborate)
  • new initiatives (eg older people working with Social Services to monitor the quality of services in residential homes)
  • creative opportunism (eg having the relationships and information in place to bid successfully and at short notice to become a pilot site for a government programme).
  • How does this way of working fit with formal structures?

    It fits by offering you another strategy. It gives you a way of operating in the top-left quadrant of the partnership typology. Organisations need both formal structures and 'partnerships for possibilities' so it's not either/or. Throughout joint working arrangements there are many formal structures in operation - contracting procedures allow you to compete and to coordinate, performance targets and joint planning mechanisms allow you to coordinate and so on. In time, some of the possibilities which emerge through co-evolving behaviour will be realised through formal structures elsewhere.

    It also fits through people. The same people who gain information and shared understanding from operating in 'possibilities mode' bring this to bear on their other work in more formal settings.

    Do we need a lead agency?

    Having a lead agency is usually a means of holding one agency accountable, and that is not appropriate here. The whole system approach is good at developing a sense of joint responsibility. This is one characteristic of a system 'being aware of itself ' so it's not appropriate to create another hierarchy. You probably do need an organisation to act as 'host' mainly for administrative purposes, but that is not the same as accountability.

    The other thing to remember is that this way of thinking is not simply about inter-agency work - the notion of 'the whole' and 'the parts' and how they connect has as much relevance for a single organisation and human enterprises of all sorts.

    What do you mean by 'an approach'?

    It's a combination of new ideas and practical methods of working. We think it's the strength of this combination that creates the conditions that enable people to re-engage with long-standing problems.

    It's not a toolkit - more like a tune in the back of your head. You'll be keeping your eyes open for ways you're already operating that could be adapted.

    Does change always involve large numbers of people?

    Change in organisations always involves large numbers of people, whether they are invited to take part or not. Usually, the many people who must take part in implementing a strategy are involved after the initial design process, which is left to the responsibility of a few.

    The approach we describe recognises the potential contribution of people with many different perspectives. The question then becomes 'how do you work constructively with the great diversity in a complex system?' If this requires working with large numbers of people, we are confident that there are effective methods for doing so. Some of these bring large numbers of people to work together. Others involve large numbers of people but do not necessarily bring them together.

    Our view is that it is purpose, passion and meaning which build coherence in complex human systems - in which case the more people involved, the better.

    What does a whole system event cost?

    There are two sorts of cost - those which are borne by the local system and those which are paid for 'up front':

    (a) costs borne by the system

  • Participants' time to take part in a planning process
  • Participants' time to take part in a whole system event
  • Administration to build up a participants list and issue invitations and to co-ordinate activities after an event.
  • (b)costs paid for up front

  • facilitators to design and lead the planning process and the event. These costs usually vary from 10 - 25 days work depending on the degree of sustainability you are aiming for and the follow-through you want to invest in.
  • domestic costs such as meeting rooms, conference venue, printing, food and so on. These too will vary depending on what local agencies provide 'in kind' and the numbers of people involved.
  • So what's the distinctive benefit of a whole system event?

    If your aim is to change the system's behaviour then adopting this approach will get a great many people connected and their attention focused on a shared concern. The real investment is in the use of people's time. 120 local people working together over two days is about the equivalent of a whole year's work for one person. You might, for example, decide to employ a liaison worker to make connections and build an understanding of the system and its possibilities and to share this with local organisations. Or for comparable cost you might prefer to get 120 well-connected local people, and the possibility of changing the system's behaviour. Value for money will depend on your purpose.

    Can you really trust the system?

    Again, it depends. If you believe that human systems organise themselves whether or not they are subject to formal control, then the answer is 'Yes you can trust the system to organise itself'. Our experience is that if the right mix of people is brought together and meetings are designed which enable them to work constructively, then we can trust their judgement. And lots more people are involved in creating possibilities than usual. (What you can't do, of course is trust the system to do what you want).

    When is it worth taking this approach?

    When you recognise that you are looking for new ways of working and that more-of-the-same just won't produce new solutions, no matter how hard people try.

    How do you make sure participants are representative?

    You need people form 'every neck of the woods' but this way of working is not about finding representatives. Our experience is that the methods which are successful are designed to allow everyone to participate as an individual, not as a representative. Participative behaviour is about taking personal responsibility, whereas representative behaviour is about expressing views clearly and handing over responsibility for action to others.

    Is this just better consultation?

    No. Consultation is about asking for and providing opinions and advice (e.g responding to plans made by others, seeking feedback on existing services, assessing what the community wants). Consultation serves other purposes too (e.g. informing the public, gaining legitimacy for decisions, or permitting dissent to be heard). There are lots of ways of doing it - focus groups, citizens' juries, questionnaires, public enquiry and so on.

    The whole system approach we describe has a different purpose. It is about all the parts of a system co-producing something together for a shared purpose. Lay people or service users or the public are not separate but an integral part of the system. Consultation in the usual sense is just not an option.

    Is it 'the event' that really matters?

    Yes and No. The prominence of an event is both attractive and problematic. Yes, it matters. Any large group meeting engages a lot of people and is very public. It can be a stimulating and productive way of working, but this alone won't change the system's behaviour. In our view a large group conference only becomes a Whole System Event (WSE) under certain conditions and then there is the possibility of the system choosing to change the way it operates. The WSE is part of beginning to work differently.

    What's the legitimacy for working this way?

    Organisations need both formal structures and conversations to generate possibilities. This approach does not replace other working methods. It's legitimacy arises from making explicit the shared purpose of a wider range of people than are usually involved, from finding out what people care enough about to work on together.

    How does accountability operate?

    Being accountable outside formal hierarchies is based on holding oneself accountable for something, for behaving in ways that support the purpose of the system. It is not about being accountable to someone.

    Is this community development 1990s style?

    Again, it depends how you see things. Community development can be seen as a way of contributing effectively to organisations by enabling local people to add their voice, to supply a missing part of the jigsaw. In this sense whole system working is different in that it involves all participants (local citizens, board members, middle managers, operators) in co-creating the future.

    Community development can also be seen as enabling a local community to take action. Whole system working is similar to this sense of community development but it includes organisations as well as communities. It's not bottom-up but neither is it top-down - it's about all levels of power working together.

    We are struck by the notion that ideas take a good twenty years to take off. If this is so then a lot of people who are now in positions of formal authority were around in the 60s and 70s and interested in community development. Whole system working is not the same but it does have overlaps - like an upward spiral rather than going round in circles.

    What does real time work mean?

    Real time is what happens here and now, not a preamble or planning but what happens in the moment. In whole systems working the bit of the work that takes place in real time is about creating shared meaning and relationships. Once these are in place, then the detail of actioning the work can take place anywhere. What whole system working can do in real time is to surface what people are willing to collaborate on, to produce together - the so-called common ground - and to generate the relationships, energy and information flows which can sustain it.

    This way of working contrasts with much committee work, which serves a different purpose. A committee takes stock of what has happened since the last meeting and agrees what needs to be done before the next one. The principal task in the here and now is to make decisions in an open and accountable way that is minuted and leaves an audit trail.

    Is this about creating consensus?

    No. It's not about reaching a broad consensus on what action to take. If everybody has to agree what to do often nobody ends up particularly excited about anything. It's not about looking for the right answer or about ironing out differences. It's more about bringing into the open lots of different perspectives out of which possibilities may emerge. It's about being clear about purpose and meaning. Sometimes it's enough to simply bring these to the surface. When people find there is more shared understanding than they realised, then that too leads to unexpected actions.

    What about sustainability?

    Our experience is that local systems can find their own solutions to their long-standing concerns. They're not likely to be new inventions. They may be new to some agencies but are almost certainly known somewhere - it's the process of uncovering, rather than importing or inventing solutions, that generates the possibility of change which is not only locally appropriate but sustainable.

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