Solace Blog

Collaboration in a Smaller, Bigger, Different World

Over the last eight years, I’ve been leading Sutton Council as we become a smaller, bigger and different organisation. We’re definitely smaller. Our direct workforce at the time of writing is 1001 employees (down from 2600 (exc. Schools) in 2011). We’re certainly bigger as we extend our work with communities and partners locally, sub-regionally and nationally; and we’re very different, having adopted a commissioning approach to deliver our outcomes.

Smaller, bigger, different (Smaller Bigger Different) is also the name of our organisational development strategy which has at its core an unequivocal commitment to collaboration as a mechanism of securing value for our communities. Our values, our purpose and behaviours have been forged in this context and we are increasingly seeing the fruits of this approach in the innovative and creative ways colleagues have tackled the constant conundrum of increasing demand and reducing cash. It is also evident in happier, engaged and creative colleagues who I hope have been liberated to do good. It’s humbling to see leadership happening at all levels and in all areas of our organisation and in extraordinary ways (like our innovative work on social impact bonds in children’s social care or our work with colleagues in the health system.)

In the last few years, we’ve worked with Collaborate CIC to develop our work with our partners in the public, private and community sectors on a programme called the  Sutton Plan. This involves 23 organisations working together to reform public services for the good of the citizens of the borough to achieve better and affordable outcomes. Our collective work has allowed us to identify our reform principles and our joint challenges based on a rich understanding of quantitative and qualitative data about our community.

As important as the work on the diagnosis and policy has been the way we’ve worked. Like the Council’s own approach, our partners have also been developing their own approaches to collaborative leadership. We have come together as leaders to understand our issues and pressures, our traditions and values and our shared interest in the citizens we serve. We have recognised that as a system and as a place we all have a part to play to get the best results we can with the resources we have

To do this we have recognised the role of our citizens as active participants in the system. Our Citizen Commissioners and Young Commissioners are involved in the full range of commissioning decisions and activities (now adopted as national policy in the Civil Society Strategy). Opening ourselves up in this way has required new ways of working at all levels in our organisations and in all areas of activity. This can be a challenge where parts of our system are not used to citizen engagement and empowerment, but it has undoubtedly allowed us to deliver in different ways.

Building capability in the system is key to collaborative system leadership and this does not stop at the Board Room. As the report from the Collaborate Foundation (State of Collaboration) says, collaborative capacity is a prerequisite for successful system and place leadership. Our own approach has been to invest in support and space for frontline workers to create their own collaboration across organisational boundaries, with some incredible results (such as the Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Network who are transforming support for families). Colleagues in this area have been enabled and empowered and not mandated or required to innovate and solve a systemic problem and our approach is now beginning to be replicated in other areas of London.   

Over the last year or so, I have participated in the Ignite programme which has been a privilege. I have built my own network and learned more about collaborative leadership and learned that leading public services collaboratively requires humility, patience and a willingness to help others to succeed. It’s not about having all the answers and it’s not about being the hero. My experience in applying this approach to my own work with partners has been that we have made more progress on some of the thorniest issues in our community by simply appreciating our collective responsibility and helping each other to achieve. Ingraining these behaviours in the way we work has empowered my colleagues to be more resilient in facing the future.

And that’s no bad thing as we all face up to the uncertainty that this will bring.


Niall Bolger

Sutton, October 2018