Note of Better Way cell discussion, 2nd cell, 29 November 2017


The topic of discussion was a Better Way leadership and it was introduced by Richard Wilson who said that he had come to the view that it was system changes, rather leadership, that drives through real change. 

One example of this was Sheffield Microsystem Coaching Academy, which hopes ‘to create a culture of sustained patient-centred continuous quality improvement’ within health services in Sheffield and trains ‘coaches in the art of team coaching and the science of quality improvement to work with front line teams to help the redesign the services they deliver….  It encourages coaches to deeply involve patients in their micro-system improvement, to help group members understand the value to the customer, drawing on tools including patient interviews and stories, patient representation in microsystems, and fictional patients. ‘ 

Richard said that this approach had really worked and as a consequence he had become really interested in geographical and issues based approaches.  Harthill Consulting, which has worked with banks to encourage staff to think about their values and really apply them, is another example of this kind of technique.  Some other examples of systems changes would be to give staff radical control over their pay and hours.  At an aeronautics company, Matblack Systems they had a highly distributed model of leadership in which everyone had their own company.  This was not going to work in the public sector, though.  Context is key.  Different contexts require different structures.

NESTA’s 100 days rapid response programme was considered as an example of trying to achieve systems change by bringing leaders together to explore radically different ways of doing things within a 100 days.  It was a great idea but one experience of it in a local government context was that it was chaotic, involved few people working in the area and engaged no users of the services, and was too driven by a narrow and pre-determined view about the solution. 

We talked about the problems of delivering change in local government.  One issue was that if one leader who is sponsoring change moved on, things no longer progress.  Or local authorities expect the voluntary sector to pick up innovations rather than carrying them through themselves.  It could be very difficult to implement asset-based approaches when a top down approach is deeply ingrained.  Systems changes could help guard against these problems.  The Early Action Task Force talks of change only happening when three things occur:  leadership and culture and systems change.

One type of systems review is carried out by Vanguard Consulting, which Locality had used to create its report, Saving Money by Doing the Right Thing, which identified how money was being wasted by the public sector by not sorting out problems early on and moving people on to multiple agencies who were unable to resolve their issues alone.

We discussed the idea that leadership was multi-faceted.  A RSA report had found three forms of power were important to leadership – personal agency; the power of shared values and norms; and the hierarchical power of expertise. 

It was certainly the case leadership does not necessarily take place at the top of organisations.  Leadership can equate to influence, which can happen at any level.    It is sometimes a question of finding the people who know how to make things happen.

If problems are complex, the literature in this area confirms that this always requires distributive leadership.  This is not the case for simple problems, which can require a top down approach, nor for so-called ‘complicated’ problems.  This analysis was powerful and chimed with the experience of the group that context mattered hugely and that no one leadership style was always appropriate.  However, when it came to complex issues, on which both the voluntary and public sectors were often engaged, collaboration and partnership was critical.

The group was very struck by this last analysis and suggested that we further develop it in the Better Way network, as it could unlock fresh thinking about how to change services for the better.