Complexity demands collaboration and a new paradigm that supports this, by Toby Lowe

Toby Lowe

Toby Lowe

In an essay that first appeared in Insights for A Better Way, Toby Lowe gives his reflections on our proposition, 'Collaboration is better than competition.'

Almost all social interventions are complex. There are three key reasons for this: issues, people and systems are all complex, but we often pretend otherwise. We need ‘trust based’ funding and alliance contracting to recognise this.

Issues are complex

First, the issues with which social interventions are typically concerned are complex, in that they are the result of multiple, intertwined factors. We can see this in the amazing systems map of obesity, produced by the UK Government in 2007. It maps the 108 different factors, and the relationships between them, that lead to a person being obese (or not).

Obesity model.png

Vandenbroeck, P., Goossens, J. and Clemens, M. (2007), Foresight Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Building the Obesity System Map, London: Government Office for Science,

People are complex

We now routinely use the language of ‘complex needs’ and apply it to groups of people who seem to have particularly difficult combinations of problems. Understanding complex needs is important, but this can mask a deeper truth. From the perspective of seeking to create positive outcomes in the world, all people’s lives are complex. What makes my life meaningful to me is different than what makes your life meaningful to you. Consequently, what an outcome like obesity (for example) looks like for me will be different than for you.

'For too long we have tried to ignore this complexity'

Systems are complex

A wide range of people, organisations and relationships contribute to creating the outcomes that people experience in their lives - from informal relationships of friends and family, through to a whole range of services and other interventions.

What all of the above tells us is that our work is inescapably complex. For too long we have tried to ignore this complexity and pretend that the work is simple. We have pretended that standardised proxy measures can represent the complexity of people’s lives. And we have pretended that outcomes are made by linear processes of change which can be modelled like this:

logic model.jpg

Schalock, R. L. and Bonham, G. S. (2003), Measuring outcomes and managing for results, Evaluation and Program Planning, 26, 4: 229–35.

Complexity requires collaboration

Collaboration is a necessary response, if we want to help people’s lives to improve.

The key message is that positive outcomes aren’t ‘delivered’ by interventions or services. Systems produce outcomes. And they do so in irreducibly unpredictable ways – because the range of factors interacting with each other produce emergent outcomes which cannot be predicted in advance, and which cannot be controlled by any single person or organisation.

We must nurture the health of these systems so that they are more likely to produce positive outcomes than not. In particular, it is the job of those who have responsibility for places and services – such as public and voluntary sector leaders and charitable funders – to take responsibility and ensure that the actors in these systems – the people and organisations who live, work and volunteer within them – can work effectively together to respond collaboratively to the particular strengths and needs of each person and community.

A Whole New World

Last year, we undertook research with a range of charitable funders and public sector commissioners to explore what they can do to make this real. What we found was an emerging new paradigm – a different way of thinking and acting – for funding and commissioning. We called this ‘A Whole New World’.

The key elements of this new world are:

·      Intrinsic Motivation. Funders and commissioners working in this complexity-informed way recognise that the people who do this work are intrinsically motivated to do so. They do not require extrinsic motivation – external rewards and punishments –  to be motivated to do a good job.

·      Learning drives improvement. This shift opens up space for learning to be the engine of performance improvement, rather than relying on vertical accountability (your boss watching over you) to create improvement. Funders, commissioners and delivery organisations who work in this way create learning environments: they create cultures in which groups of practitioners reflect together, they create ‘positive error cultures’ in which people are able to talk openly with their peers about mistakes and uncertainties and improve their capacity to make difficult judgements in situations of uncertainty. And they use measurement to learn and improve, rather than to ‘demonstrate their effectiveness’.

·      Nurturing system health. Finally, to improve the health of the system they invest in networks and information sharing mechanisms, helping the actors in the system to communicate and co-ordinate their work. And beyond the structures, they invest in nurturing trust – building positive relationships between the actors in those systems, so that the communication is authentic, honest and meaningful.

 What this looks like in practice: trust-based funding and alliance contracting

Trust is central to this new paradigm. Charitable funders describe their practice as ‘trust-based funding’. This means funding given without KPIs or other performance targets – unrestricted funding which allows organisations to respond to the rapidly changing environments in which they work, and which allows those organisations to provide the bespoke responses to each person and communities particular strengths and needs. They find the organisations they can trust to navigate the complexity of people and systems effectively. They find the organisations they trust to do the right thing when the world changes – because the world will change.

Key to this paradigm is therefore finding out what are good reasons for funders and fundees to trust one another. What funders said was that they trust organisations who collaborate well, who know what role they play in wider systems, organisations who learn well, and who use evidence to inform their practice.

Commissioners are also using ‘alliance contracting’ as a way of distributing resources – allocating resources to networks of collaborating organisations and trusting them to use these resources well. In order to enable adaptive responses to the ever-changing complexity of the work, commissioners don’t use KPIs or other targets. Instead they support the organisations to use measurement as a way to reflect on and improve their practice  and y hold the organisations they fund accountable for learning and improving.

A growing movement

Over 300 funders, commissioners and delivery organisations have already said they would like to join a Community of Practice where they can explore how to work in this way together. You can begin to see what they’re talking about here. And if you would like to find out more, you can sign up to receive further information here.

And if you’re already working in this way, or would like to start, we’ve just started an action-research project which will help us to answer some of the key ‘how do we do this?’ questions. These include: ‘how does accountability work, if we can’t hold organisations accountable for results?’, ‘what are good reasons for trust?’ and ‘what does a healthy system look like, and how do we know if we’ve got one?’. Drop me a line if you’d like to be part of this.

Toby Lowe is a Senior Research Fellow at Newcastle University Business School, who is helping to create a new complexity-informed paradigm for the funding, commissioning and delivery of social interventions – helping organisations to escape from the shackles of the failing New Public Management approach.  He’s also an ex voluntary sector Chief Executive, and an over-enthusiastic dancer.