From building successful organisations to nurturing flourishing systems

Oliver Standing

By Oliver Standing, Director, Collective Voice

Increasingly I’ve been thinking about the question ‘What constitutes a flourishing system?’ in addition to the more traditional, although sometimes no more straightforward. ‘How can I deliver the mission of my organisation?’. I suppose there are a few reasons for that. Firstly, I have tried to deliberately develop an inquisitive mindset which strives for deeper understandings of people, process and purpose. Secondly, as I have gained more experience as a leader (and a human being), I have appreciated more and more the interrelated nature of the components of any system whether a family unit or a national charity providing health care to thousands of people. Thirdly the disruption wrought by the pandemic – sui generis in living memory – has caused all manner of system disturbance, from the thrillingly novel – the mass digital delivery of vital support interventions – to the potentially catastrophic – the possible collapse of community pharmacy networks – which have better revealed system terrains and tendencies.

Below are six reflections this thinking has prompted.

The existential threat posed by the pandemic brought with it an appetite for radical collaboration. The sense of being ‘in it together’ was strong, with closer working that I have ever seen between providers, local government commissioners, lived experience led agencies and Public Health England, particularly in those frantic days at the very start. This was driven by a mixture of worry, overriding sense of shared mission and apprehension/excitement at the spectacle of a new world re-forming before our eyes.

The technology gave the appearance of flattening power structures, enabling collaboration. In meetings, CEOs, commissioners, recovery champions and policy leads alike are all housed in a digital rectangle of identical proportions. I hope that those colleagues who previously felt less confident speaking in meetings in person were aided by this move to digital. Those digital rectangles also acted as windows into our colleagues’ humanity; senior civil servants joined meetings wearing hoodies or t-shirts, the unscripted interventions of kids and pets lightened the mood.

Much of this digitally facilitated collaboration will stick. I previously convened a quarterly two-hour meeting of policy leads from organisations across the domains of multiple disadvantage (think criminal justice, mental health, substance use, homelessness, domestic abuse etc). These were good meetings, we even made it to the pub afterwards a couple of times. When the pandemic struck, we quickly moved to monthly, hour-long video meetings which has enabled a wider group of colleagues from across the country to join, although lost some of the energy and connection that in-person interactions inevitably bring.

As the existential threat recedes, so too does the appetite for radical collaboration. This fact is bemoaned by commentators bent on co-creating a new normal or otherwise brighter world, but I’m phlegmatic about it and see it as a natural human reaction to changing circumstance. There were lots of good bits in the pre-pandemic world. Also, the (often unconscious) forces of conservatism will exert a strong force in driving systems back to previous configurations. I’m sceptical that history will record a ‘post-covid settlement’ in a similar way that it does the realignment and consensus after the Second World War.

A pandemic has revealed the uneven distribution of assets in our systems. This in turn has enhanced the need and/or desire to collaborate for some, curtailed it for others. The impacts of Covid-19 have broken along society’s pre-existing fault-lines. Has it been the clarifying agent necessary to usher in a new confidence in talking about the structural nature of things? Perhaps. Interestingly it has coincided with an explosion in awareness of race, structural racism and wider systematic inequalities. The idea that racism, for example, can exist not just in the minds and actions of individual bad actors but in the architecture of the actual system now has much deeper roots. The complex, structural challenges posed by the pandemic, the ongoing debates about culture and identity and the growing focus on health inequalities all point to the necessity of sophisticated, collaborative responses. None of us can do this on our own.

The existential threat posed by the pandemic brought with it an appetite for radical collaboration. However, as the existential threat recedes, so too does the appetite for radical collaboration: Click To Tweet
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