Solace Blog

Improving outcomes: the importance of leadership, systems and commissioning

By Mark Rogers, Past President, SOLACE and Executive Director, Collaborate CIC

The lead up to the SOLACE Summit always feels like a good moment to carve out a modicum of thinking time and to strategise for the programme ahead. As the cliché goes, we frequently find ourselves consumed by the urgent at the expense of the important. Reflection is too often confined to those fleeting moments of solitude when we are showering/gardening/walking the dog/undertaking the supermarket run.


So, having eschewed all the above, I have devoted an entire afternoon – wicked, I know, especially with a beautiful late autumnal day neglected in the process – to mulling over some of the transcendent issues that I hope will excite and tax delegates, both at the Summit and in the weeks, months and years to come.

Leadership

“Only Connect” wrote EM Forster. I may have skewed the fundamental meaning of this aphorism to my own end, but Howard’s End is one of my longstanding inspirations for what we now call relational leadership. The kind that promotes understanding and empathy as the starting points for “doing business”. Trying to walk in another’s shoes is both respectful and gives an insight into others’ world views, values and aspirations.

Leadership, to be clear, is not management. The former convenes, aligns, impassions and demands emotional intelligence. It lives by influence, not control, and – crucially for me – it seeks to authorise and legitimise others, not hold onto power and control, but to cede it to those who would make best use of it. It takes responsibility for giving responsibility to others. It is humble and restrained and engenders trust. It is beautiful and elegant and should be cherished like a child for the potential it has to make a positive difference.

(Management is, of course, important: it gets other things done. But without leadership it is empty; without purpose or authority.)

SOLACE is an organisation whose primary purpose is to identify, support, develop and challenge its members to be the best leaders they can be. I look forward to a summit where, woven throughout the functional fabric of the discussions, is the golden thread of securing a modern, forward-looking, progressive pipeline and senior cadre of officers who see giving power away as the most powerful act they can perform.

Systems

We are, of course, in an era when leadership is no longer, first and foremost, about individual organisations. It is about people, places and, crucially, systems. Of course, organisations need to be led, but we lead them in the higher knowledge that they form part of the multi-dimensional ecology of a place where the Walpolian idea(l) of “primus inter pares” is the enemy of equitable joint endeavour and achievement with the communities we serve.

Systems leadership accordingly recognises the relational imperative and emphasises that - given the interdependency between individuals, communities and the organisations that serve and support them – leaders are only legitimised, optimised and effective when they embrace the role as a shared, inclusive and collaborative enterprise.

But there is more to working in complex, dynamic environments than connecting and empathising; sharing and giving away power. Making change that has the positive consequences intended within complex systems also requires a recognition that challenges come in tame, critical and wicked forms, with a tendency to the latter.

Interventions need to take account of the complex dynamics between the variously and variedly interacting parts of the system and recognise that this environment is not going to be well-served by simple, linear or unilateral actions. Using relationships as the binding for aligning values, confirming purpose and agreeing outcomes provides an essential foundation, but leaders also need to work collaboratively as equals to understand system dynamics and interdependencies and how a change will impact across that system.  And as a colleague observed to me recently, this isn’t about understanding chaos theory. It’s about reducing the risk of chaos in the first place by knowing, as best one can, how it arises and how it might be prevented by collective effort to divine both the intended and unintended consequences of change. Risk cannot be eliminated within such complexity, but by collectively assessing the nature of it, the unpredictabilities are reducible.

Commissioning

Plan, Do, Check, Act. Yes – but no.

Sure, there’s value in such a formula but, as we look ahead, the new challenge is not to agree what the commissioning cycle is, but to work through what applying it in a complex environment entails.

Future commissioning needs to be both at atomic and subatomic scales. A good JSNA is one thing. But collaborating with communities to understand with them on the ground what really should change, how that might happen, and with what resources leads us to confront the reality that we are commissioning in complexity. Whatever we think, we rarely have the alignment we are looking for – of outcomes, of interventions, of people, of money, of evaluation of impact.

If we are leading systems, then we need to think about how we are commissioning in macro- and micro- systems – most especially systems in which the relationship with hierarchies is changing. Changing because of confidence-erosion in authority; because new social and technological conditions are enabling network proliferation; and because of the need for a new “social contract” between citizen and state which recognises that engagement and consultation are not true collaboration.

This is hugely challenging. We will, inevitably and rightly, worry about a whole range of issues: postcode lotteries; value for money; capabilities (individual, community and organisational); institutional inertia and resistance; our own purpose, role and relevance. But we know that we can’t carry on the way we are. Just look at STPs, Combined Authorities, Children’s Trusts. For the people; but not of or from the people. And all of them crying out for an approach from leaders who get that crashing silos together does not a new system make, nor collaboration engender.

So, as we head to Manchester, let’s use our time wisely. Think big, think bold, think courageously. But, above all, think collaboratively.