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February 25, 2015

Transform the system

A recent edition of Local People Leading featured the work of Prof. John Seddon and his ideas about how systems theory could transform public services. Judging by the response to that piece, many people think his proposals are an important step in the right direction. Scottish Government has committed a huge amount of money to the cause public service reform. Here’s hoping some of it finds its way in the direction of Seddon’s work. Here are 10 things you could do to get things rolling in your organisation.



Ella Hunter, New Start Magazine

New Start Magazine sponsored a special edition on how system change might be applied to see the rest of this publication click here

10 ways to change a system:

1.            Put a shelf life on your organisation. Most organisations aimed at social change grow over time and often get further away from the problem they were set up to solve. MAC-UK – an organisation ensuring that deprived young people have access to mental health services – has given itself a ten-year shelf life to ensure that its focus is on embedding its ideas into practice rather than on running and building another organisation.

2.            Seed a movement not an organisation. The Transition Town movement works like a virus, infecting people to come together to create greater resilience in their local communities. It has a template for change that new groups can take on and adapt as they see fit. Likewise, the Civic Systems Lab creates ‘platforms’ through which civic change can happen.

3.            Be ‘of’ the community. Paternalism is still alive and kicking in many organisations that are unable to shake off the hierarchies and power structures that arise when one group of people tries to help another. But organisations likeBarca in Leeds and the WomenCentre take people and community as the starting point from which their work flows. Time banks and appreciative enquiry help to level hierarchies.

4.            Focus on root causes not symptoms. Most social problems are symptoms of deeper issues, be they structural inequalities in society or deep-seated problems within a person. While it is important to deal with the symptoms that manifest themselves – be they substance abuse or homelessness – this needs to be combined with a focus on tackling the roots of the issue and the systems keeping those problems in place.

5.            Collaborate around a problem, leaving organisational egos behind. Many blame middle managers for putting up barriers to change. As people move up hierarchies within organisations and become more specialised they often find it difficult to think outside of their rigid professional boundaries. But space can be created to allow staff to think without their organisational hats on. Monmouthshire Council is creating space and time to build innovation into its structures.

6.            Focus on people’s capabilities and assets not their deficits. As our leaders and media scapegoat and stigmatise vulnerable people, we need organisations that see the person not the label. Leeds Gate is improving the quality of life for gypsy and Irish traveller communities.

7.            Scale values not organisations. The organisational structure is often not the best vehicle through which to create change. It is sometimes more powerful to practice and nurture strong values that change behaviour. Julie Fawcett turned around the run-down Stockwell Park estate and transformed the lives of countless young people by spreading the values of ‘love, tolerance and forgiveness’.

8.            Leave behind the safety blanket of professional methods and learn something new. In Lambeth Council staff members who spent part of their working week talking to citizens at the Open Works shop set up on a local high street, said that the experience had fundamentally changed the way they did their jobs. A team of child and adult health and social workers called Love Barrow Families has overturned the way it works to put itself truly at the service of families in need.

9.            Listen. At Barca in Leeds they practice ‘active listening’ to truly understand what is going on in the lives of their clients and ensure that their responses are based on fact rather than assumption. A commitment to listening also means that they are continually learning from those with whom they interact.

10.          Practice humility.