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Leading changeA guide to whole systems working$

Margaret Attwood

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9781861344496

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861344496.001.0001

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Why do we need whole systems change?

Why do we need whole systems change?

(p.1) One Why do we need whole systems change?
Leading change

Margaret Attwood

Mike Pedler

Sue Pritchard

David Wilkinson

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Whole systems approaches start from rethinking organisational change issues; how people act in relation to them, and, crucially, how they involve themselves and others in their diagnosis and treatment. Whole systems working is not another fad or series of buzz words, but is above all concerned with implementation, and with seeking to reconcile these dilemmas in practice. This chapter explores the failure of programmatic change; identifies the imperative for implementation of sustainable change, rather than mere intervention to ‘fix’ problems; examines alternative streams of activity and thinking that can create a ‘different beat’ in efforts to handle intractable problems; and shares the emerging thinking about the reconciliation of four linked dilemmas integral to whole systems working which must be confronted in achieving changes in public policy and service delivery.

Keywords:   programmatic change, public policy, service delivery, sustainable change, whole systems

Governments the world over are desperate to find ways of delivering better services and new forms of governance that are responsive to user, citizen and community needs. Economic forces and globalisation have pushed these previously domestic matters into a wider international context. Government priorities worldwide centre on stabilising national economies and improving public services, especially health and education, in the face of electorates apparently reluctant to pay higher taxes. The clarion call of politicians is ‘Delivery, delivery, delivery’. Their political lives now depend on it. But do politicians, their civil servants and managers have the conceptual, institutional and practical tools that are fit for this purpose?

The answer to the question seems to be no, at least not in any consistent sense. Top-down change initiatives increase in the hope of a ‘big’ answer around the corner. Private sector ideas such as internal markets, hit squads of super managers and tougher inspection regimes are imported in the hope of a fix. Yet many of these ideas are deeply flawed and not even effective in the commercial settings where they originate (Heller, 2001). However, while leaders are driven to desperate searches for big solutions, there are numerous examples of exciting innovations at the local level. Despite the persistent mantra of learning from best practice, much of this local innovation is not widely shared and gets lost.

Whole systems approaches are rooted in years of evidence-based practice in public, private, voluntary and community domains (Wilkinson, 1997; Wilkinson and Appelbee, 1999). Despite the political slogan that ‘What works is what counts’, service improvements are ‘constructed’ and delivered through organisational frameworks and practices that have not themselves been subject to evidence-based enquiry. As Robert Heller puts it:

These schemes are devised, usually at ministerial behest, by civil servants who know little about management, and probably think less, and who are not expert in the practice of medicine, education, justice or transport. The inevitably misshapen plans are sold to politicians even less qualified than the Whitehall wizards. (Heller, 2001, p 9)

Whole systems approaches do not offer a single technique or new big answer. A large part of the problem is that we live in the continuing hope that we either have, or are about to discover, the final answer. There are no solutions (p.2) that can be programmed in from the top. Whole systems approaches start from rethinking organisational change issues; how we act in relation to them, and, crucially, how we involve both ourselves and others in their diagnosis and treatment. Whole systems working is not another fad or series of buzz words, but is above all concerned with implementation, and with seeking to reconcile these dilemmas in practice.

In this chapter we:

  • explore the failure of programmatic change;

  • identify the imperative for implementation of sustainable change, rather than mere intervention to ‘fix’ problems;

  • briefly examine alternative streams of activity and thinking that can create a ‘different beat’ in efforts to handle intractable problems;

  • share our emerging thinking about the reconciliation of four linked dilemmas integral to whole systems working that must be confronted in achieving changes in public policy and service delivery.

The poverty of programmatic change

In developing our ideas about whole systems development approaches, we have worked primarily, but not exclusively, in and across the public, voluntary and community sectors. Most of our examples are taken from these sectors because the problems encountered here are likely to be complex and multi-organisational, and to require user and stakeholder involvement to find sustainable solutions. Yet, private sector businesses are an important part of the analysis. These days few organisations go it alone; most are likely to be part of supply and value chains and networks with many different partners. Commercial organisations are increasingly involved in the multi-agency mix seeking to deliver improved services. Private sector organisations are under increasing pressure to be accountable, environmentally sound and socially responsible, and this is leading to more inclusive approaches with a variety of stakeholders. As the ideas of whole systems development have often been pioneered in the public, voluntary and community sectors, private organisations have much to learn from their colleagues in these areas.

The most important lesson is the failure and poverty of programmatic change. For example, the UK government has set itself targets for achieving world-class public services because it is evident that these services have to be transformed to meet the expectations of the electorate. From the government's perspective there are unacceptable differences between the performances of, for example, schools and hospitals with comparable population characteristics. Too many public services are seen as clinging to outmoded practices and working in the interests of self-serving professions. Consequently, they are perceived as unresponsive to service users and communities alike. Despite the efforts of successive governments, a culture of complacency still dominates and the view (p.3) is that putting more resources into this system will produce more of the same, rather than bringing about the transformation required. The situation calls for ever more determined resolve to find solutions to these intractable problems, which seem to be getting worse rather than better. The feeling seems to be that, if the current institutions and those leading them are not up to the job, then the private sector may be.

From this vantage point, it is easy to understand why the chosen tools of change, top-down targets, inspection and the search for the ‘big’ solution are so dominant. However, achieving the government's targets is no simple matter; this complex problem comprises an interlinked set of issues, as follows.

Lack of resources?

Until recently, the government has been seeking to provide Britain with the standards of public services found in Germany and France (where tax is 50% of gross domestic product, or GDP) using levels of taxation nearer to those of the US (tax 30–35% of GDP). This has also happened at a time of increasing costs imposed by the massive expansion of inspection and audit regimes, although this is being moderated by increased spending on health and education in particular. However, the extent to which increased expenditure now can compensate for the shortfalls of the previous 25 years remains an open question.

Institutional rigidity?

Our powerlessness is not a personal failing, but an institutional one. Most of the institutions we rely upon to protect and guide us through this tumult – governments, trade unions, companies – seem paralysed. Our traditional institutions, many of which were designed for an era of railways, steelworks, factories and dockyards, are enfeebled. We are on the verge of the global twenty-first century knowledge economy, yet we rely on national institutions inherited from the nineteenth-century industrial economy. The contrast is instructive. The nineteenth century was revolutionary because the Victorians matched their scientific and technological innovations with radical institutional innovations: the extension of democracy, the creation of local government, the birth of modern savings and insurance schemes, the development of a professional civil service, the rise of trade unions and the emergence of the research-based university. We are timid and cautious where the Victorians were confident and innovative. We live within the shell of institutions the nineteenth century handed down to us. Our highly uneven capacity for innovation is the fundamental source of our unease. We are scientific and technological revolutionaries, but political and institutional conservatives. (Leadbeater, 2000, p viii)

(p.4) The delivery gap?

Bright ideas dreamt up at the centre sink time and again … [due to] … the absence of a grassroots delivery mechanism that is both accountable and effective.… Thanks to the Social Exclusion Unit's work we know the exact dimensions and location of deprivation. But dealing with it … depends more critically than ever on ministers and civil servants deciding just how they are going to deliver at the micro and local levels if they will not or cannot use councils. (David Walker, quoted in Christie and Worpole, 2000)

Lack of innovative capacity and capability?

There is a need for extra investment in the public sector, and the government has both the money and the political mandate to provide it. But if it were simply to pump extra money into public services without reform it would be indistinguishable from Labour governments of yesteryear, which thought money was the answer to everything. In the end, ministers believe that consumers of public services are agnostic about the way they are delivered. If, at the time of the next election, there is a discernible improvement in the quality of education and health, voters will probably not bother that much over whether it is a local authority or a private limited company that has provided the expertise.

Current methods of implementation?

Public services are dominated by a programmatic approach to change, which assumes that the organisation is like a machine and which therefore needs to be fixed by having off-the-shelf changes imposed from the top. The instigators of programmatic change are normally human resources staff or similar, supported by top management. Rarely are line managers the main agents of change. As the change effort impacts upon them they may find it difficult to see how it answers the real day-to-day problems that they have to address. It may appear as yet another change initiative in an apparently endless series, the meaning of each having long since become detached from the originators' intentions. Programmatic change efforts are often felt to add extra work and not be linked to the main purpose of people's real work. They often become discredited and descend into a kind of mad management disease; endless change programmes being led by different individuals, detached from each other and divorced from any connecting bigger picture. The change effort becomes an end in itself; another task to be done, a box ticked; or quietly forgotten, when top management has lost interest and moved on to the next fad. Sadly, nearly all quality initiatives suffer the same fate. (Wilkinson and Appelbee, 1999, p 36)

(p.5) A Mad Management Virus (MMV)?

As we have been developing our own understanding and approaches to whole systems development, we have speculated about a ‘virus’ that transmits abstract and untested assertions about what management should be (see Chapter Ten). The virus has come to dominate much of the language and style of the management discourse of many politicians and their advisers, because it offers the promise of a simple way to control delivery outcomes from the centre and thus fulfil ambitious election promises. Its ability to worm its way into the operating system damages the genuine efforts of organisations, communities and individuals to improve the way services work on the ground.

The key strands of the virus can be characterised as follows:

  • Programmatic top-down approaches always work.

  • The more inspection and control, the better the outcome.

  • Setting top-down targets produces specified results; there are no unintended consequences.

  • These methods have no harmful effect on levels of trust, staff morale, absenteeism or turnover.

  • This ‘Management1 alchemy’ has an abstract language of its own, can be parachuted onto the top of any kind of organisation, and operates a system of carrots, sticks and levers by remote control, disconnected from the concrete world of doing and implementing. It is about Management, not managing.

  • It uses ‘hard’ engineering systems approaches with negative feedback control systems. Effectively, it treats people as though they are central heating systems, and is inherently dehumanising.

  • It prevents the fundamental ideas of quality systems and philosophies by turning them into top-down bureaucratic control exercises.

  • It is what happens in the private sector and ‘private sector disciplines’ always produce better results.

This virus incubates in places of great power and defends itself within an abstract, closed world of supposedly incontrovertible truths. It is almost impossible to counteract with evidence or the experience of its application.

The implementation imperative

Programmatic, top-down approaches to change (particularly those driven by the MMV perspective) are certain to be ineffective in the face of these complex and interlocking questions. Such approaches have had little success in producing transformational change, even in the commercial context (Beer et al, 1990). Programmatic change generally attempts to focus on restructuring of one kind or another and few people believe that this brings about real and lasting change. Yet, under pressure from inspections and the need to bid for funding, which removes attention from the supposed beneficiaries, clients, users, carers, citizens (p.6) and neighbourhoods, such proposals continue to be made in an ever-increasing fever of activity. The transaction costs now arising from all this, together with ever-increasing cycles and levels of distrust, is beyond calculation.

In considering any attempt at change, it is vital to clarify the key dimensions of what might be called ‘the implementation landscape’. Engagement and implementation are the key words; they are far more important than the elegance of the organisational change intervention. Greater clarity of the implementation landscape helps to shape the processes of engagement and involvement with organisational systems and networks. Especially crucial are the processes of leadership and the creation of what is later called ‘holding frameworks’.

The American W.E. Deming, who introduced the idea of quality to Japanese manufacturers in the 1950s, would, if he were alive today, be horrified by what is being inflicted on the British public sector in the name of quality. He advised getting rid of inspection because of its cost, wastefulness and encouragement of the status quo. ‘You can't inspect quality in’, he said; it is the system that people work in and under that needs to change. It is the workers themselves, aided by their managers, who should work on the analysis of cause and improvement. Deming abhorred top-down targets and managerial exhortation to best effort, seeing them as counter to the continued improvement of quality. As a statistician, he was precise about the use of numbers and would have been appalled by their innumerate use in the current obsession with counting what are often, at best, proxies for what really matters. Given the inspection regimes that operate now, Deming would have predicted the increased costs, poor quality, increased fear, lack of trust and pride in work, the sub-optimising of individual effort to the detriment of the ‘whole’ and the low morale, poor staff retention and culture of blame and retribution that characterises so many workplaces.

Toyota's legendary production system is a lasting example of Deming's method applied and developed for over 50 years. Despite the doldrums of Japan's economy, Toyota, which is much smaller than Daimler-Chrysler, Ford or General Motors, has the most consistent profits record. For much of this period, its market capitalisation has been greater than that of the ‘big three’ put together. The result of the patient refinement of the integrated production and sales system is the ability to build cars at lower cost, to higher quality and in greater variety than any other manufacturer (Johnson, 2001).

The successful implementation of sustainable change is not easy. It takes time and there are many hurdles to overcome. Over 30 years ago, Donald Schon wrote:

… established social systems absorb agents of change and de-fuse, dilute and turn to their own ends the energies originally directed towards change.… When processes embodying threat cannot be repelled, ignored, contained or transformed, social systems tend to respond by change – but the least change capable of neutralising or meeting the intrusive process. (1971, p 40)

(p.7) This is a difficult cycle to break. To revitalise poor neighbourhoods means reviving the local economy, empowering the local community, improving public services and encouraging local leadership. However, years of top-down solutions have made local communities suspicious:

The political and professional classes, who dominate the regeneration industry, are well-meaning and chant the correct mantras; ‘Urban renewal must be community led’. But the more I get involved I get the more to feel we do not understand what it means. One disillusioned local group told me that it means: ‘When we want your opinion we'll give it to you’.… Kensington New Deal in Liverpool has been awarded £61.9 million, which is expected to lever in a further £250 million over 10 years. But how much of that money will be spent on the community instead of through it? (Jones, 2001, p 5)

Communities of people in big organisations are as suspicious as these residents, and rightly so. The question too often asked is:

‘How do we respond to and absorb all these changes?’

Rather than:

‘How do we change ourselves and our institutions to better meet the social needs, challenges and demands of today?’

A great deal is known about successful sustainable change; the challenge is to do it.

Change that works: a different beat?

Positive and successful paradigms of change put users and communities at the centre, taking the view that effective lateral cooperation around action and learning can transform communities of place, interest, practice and influence.

There are new leaders who have learned to create these conditions and who display unusual combinations of toughness, sheer bloody-minded determination and nurturing. They create and use power in very different ways and because of this they may be experienced as threatening to those in formal authority in the old order.

Some glimpses of these new alternative streams of activity and thinking follow.

(p.8) Community capacity building

For over 40 years, practice and research has pointed conclusively to community building as an essential starting point for physical, economic and environmental regeneration. Trust between residents, developed through working on local needs, creates the social cement for new partnerships with professionals.

Social and civic entrepreneurs

There has been a huge increase in innovative service provision inspired by the efforts and leadership of individuals and groups from within the community. These ‘social entrepreneurs’ or ‘community champions’ have managed to unite diverse stakeholders, such as residents and service providers, and find underutilised resources and funding streams to deliver innovative services that bring users, communities and providers together in entirely different relationships. Where innovations have been developed within the institutions of delivery, by head teachers and GPs for example, they have been called civic entrepreneurs (Wilkinson and Appelbee, 1999). Where all those concerned have a joint stake in the ownership, delivery and evaluation of services, networks of trust are built that enhance well-being and quality of life.

Systems thinking

Globalisation, environmental awareness and the evolution of the world wide web have been some of the driving forces in a shift towards understanding problems and their resolution by looking at the interconnections between parts and wholes, and relationships of subsystems within bigger systems. Because of this interconnectedness, we can no longer afford to ignore the effects of unfettered action on environments and social conditions; we need to balance freedoms and recognise webs of mutual responsibility (Mulgan, 1997).

Joining up and partnership

New forms of organising, such as alliances, supply chains, networks and ‘the associative economy’, have become the order of the day in the private sector (Cooke and Morgan, 1998; Pettigrew and Fenton, 2000). Ironically, the need for a competitive edge has led to new collaborative behaviour across competitive boundaries. Maintaining competitive advantage in an interconnected world has led to a search for more temporary, flexible forms of organising around ‘knowledge-intensive’ products and services (Hastings, 1993). In the public services, it is still the case that some partnerships happen in order to comply with policy and funding streams, yet increasingly this new imperative is a powerful source of action and learning. ‘Joining up’ may be the new jargon, but those who have embarked on it now see it as raising fundamental questions and challenges to the way they work with residents, users, clients and communities.

(p.9) The regional associative economy

There is growing evidence that regional economic development is best advanced through networks and frameworks of learning between collaborating enterprises and government agencies. More successful regions are marked by ‘associational activity, learning capability and networking practices among firms and governance organisations’ (Cooke and Morgan, 1998). Putnam (1993) has demonstrated that where a region has high levels of horizontal social trust, or social capital, this will be a stimulant and support to both economic development and good institutions of governance.

Action learning and research approaches to implementation

These approaches to organisational change and development counter the tradition of academic or expert consulting. Implementation is achieved by theories being tested in action by those who have a stake in the implementation and evaluation of outcomes. Among others, the work of Deming (1986) on quality, Revans (1982) on action learning, Weisbord (1987, 1992) on participative designs and Heifetz (1994) on leadership is central to the discussion. These writers share the belief that those who experience a problem must be core to researching, acting and learning to resolve it.

Four key dilemmas

Whole systems processes are powerful and proven tools for effective change. They can, and sometimes do, lead to effective and sustainable change. However, this sustainable change only happens when people are prepared to confront, and think radically about, these key issues and dilemmas. Effective whole systems working involves the reconciling of four key dilemmas:

  • top-down and bottom-up

  • consumer and citizen

  • treatment and prevention

  • consultation and involvement.

Dilemma one – Reconciling top-down and bottom-up

Hierarchy in some form is present in all forms of living systems and human organisations; yet, to survive, there must also be effective links between the parts and the whole. The reconciliation of vertical order and horizontal integration is crucial to collective effectiveness, never more so than when survival requires transformational change. The dominant metaphor that informs change programmes is that of the organisation as machine, where performance is optimised when work is specified in detail and shared out to distinct operating (p.10) units. Whole systems processes employ the metaphor of organisations as living beings, pluralist and in transition and flux. Seen this way, the relationships between the parts are more important than detailed definition of the workings of each part: minimum specification enhances creativity.

The central problem is that hierarchy and order are needed as much as diversity and integration. Those who cleave to the former, with their emphasis on top-down targets and inspection, are likely to have pessimistic assumptions about human nature and operate on the basis of low trust. Whole systems work takes a more optimistic view of human capacity, potential and capability, and assumes that the generation of a high-trust environment is a more realistic route to implementation. This polarity was famously set out as Theory X and Theory Y by Douglas McGregor in The human side of the enterprise, but it is as old as history (McGregor, 1961).

Whole systems working proceeds from Ken Blanchard's dictum ‘that nobody ever came to their first day at work wanting to do a bad job’. People start from positive positions, but this often dissipates on the way. Following Deming, one of the first actions is to remove fear from the workplace in order to bring about successful change. Robert Putnam has emphasised the importance of social capital in generating trust in community and organisational settings. One of his starting points is the parable by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher:

Your corn is ripe to-day; mine will be so to-morrow. ʼTis profitable for us both, that I shou'd labour with you to-day, and that you shou'd aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I shou'd be disappointed, and that I shou'd in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security. (Putnam, 1993, p 163)

Strong civic societies are connected by horizontal networks of collaboration, renewed by virtuous cycles of reciprocity and trust. Weaker societies are likely to be held together more by vertical linkages of supplication and patronage as the best protection against neighbours who cannot be trusted. In these conditions, societies are held together by cycles of dependence and exploitation:

It is evident of course that all forms of human collaboration and institutions involve both vertical and horizontal relationships, even the most participative of organisations. Further, it is almost always a cruel deception, especially in more formal organisations when leaders say that all have equal voices and that hierarchy does not exist. The important question here, is of course, the balance between the two; the extent to which formal authority is seen as legitimate, legal, accountable and transparent, and is used to give direction, (p.11) leadership and support to the horizontal ties of the wider civic society. It is the horizontal networks of civic society that give this legitimacy to vertical authority. It in turn needs to foster this by serving to strengthen its source. (Wilkinson and Appelbee, 1999, pp 55–6)

From this perspective, it is obvious that over-reliance on top-down change initiatives in complex systems is likely to increase distrust, promote sub-optimisation, reduce social capital and work against joining up, especially in action on the ground. Innovators employing whole systems methodologies seek to work in the uncomfortable spaces where the top-down collides with the horizontal and networked world of implementation. Restraining the top-down impulse in order to create virtuous cycles of hope, collective innovation and pride of purpose is what this book is about.

Dilemma two – Improving services to customers and citizens

These agendas are not mutually exclusive and can result in tangible improvements both for consumers and citizens. Collective effort between service agencies and neighbourhood groups can produce many benefits, including: less crime and vandalism; the improvement of housing and social interaction, which, in turn, produces better health; better parenting and pre-school care leading to better educational performance; more respect for persons means more respect for place, the public space, a better environment; and so on.

On the one hand, there are huge long-term gains and potential savings to be made from communities, service users and providers working together, but it does require long-term investment in both community and interagency capacity. On the other hand, short-term service delivery imperatives, especially for health, education and crime, inevitably drown out the long-term, joined-up preventative agendas. Both poles of this dilemma need support, but the second citizen pole also needs radical institutional change. This book contends that machine-like organisations with top-down ways of working cannot implement the complex agendas needed to deliver real improvements to the lives of citizens.

Dilemma three – Curative and preventative approaches

Curative approaches attempt to deal with the presenting problems, while preventative ones aim to tackle underlying causes. Again, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Prevention may lead to the eradication of problems, such as smallpox, and the huge strides in public health and human longevity are now seen to stem almost exclusively from environmental, preventative and lifestyle improvements, with the ‘curative’ contribution being negligible. Sometimes attempts are made to shift the balance, as in the policy slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. In dilemma two a shift to neighbourhood renewal and sustainable regeneration is a reorientation towards (p.12)

Table 1: Some differences between consumerist and citizen-based approaches to improvement

The consumerist agenda

The citizen/community agenda

Emphasis is on better services for individuals at the point of delivery; hospitals, schools, and so on. The focus is on what individual hospitals, schools and agencies of delivery do to work on a person's needs/problems as they are currently manifested.

The emphasis is more on building stronger, safer communities as a basis for improving employment, education, environment and health. Improving schools and health provision, especially primary care, is supported by this changing context and in turn helps to support community building.

• works with needs and problems as they exist. Accepts demand levels and increases in them, as given

• works on a preventative agenda, dealing with issues upstream in order to decrease problems and change needs

• tends to focus on improvements within individual services, but also accepts the need for maximising one-stop shops and online services

• works for the improvement of joined-up services and their re-engineering at the neighbourhood level around community agendas

• leaves the traditional relationship between provider and user much as it is, but puts greater emphasis on better customer access, information and service

• many service users might prefer this agenda, especially where services are accessible and improving, and they are confident, able to articulate demands and feel heard

• seeks a shift in the relationship and power balance between users/citizens and service providers. (Professionals on ‘tap’ rather than on top.) This aids sustainability by increasing the capacity for individuals to articulate their needs, and via the regeneration of communities and environments

• tends to lessen the emphasis on personal responsibility. Can lead to escalating and unrealistic expectations, for example, expecting a world-class service to provide aspirin in the middle of the night

• the move towards prevention places a greater responsibility on individuals, communities and providers to work together to take responsibility for the analysis of problems, their solutions and implementation

• some joining up necessary to provide better services within the existing paradigm. High alignment with the assumptions underpinning Best Value and audit/inspection regimes

• joining up and sustainable service improvement initiatives essential for long-term improvement. Likelihood of major difficulties with ‘silo-based’ Best Value and current performance management/audit/inspection regimes

• consultation – rather than involvement or participation – is carried out from the perspective of the needs and questions as perceived by the service professionals, rather than starting with the users' agendas. However, the terms consultation, involvement and participation may be used interchangeably

• focus is on genuine involvement and community participation through capacity building to develop neighbourhood and/or community interest needs and agendas. Definitely not ‘citizens in committee’. Community agendas are the basis for service, redesign and integration

(p.13) prevention. Arresting and reversing the interconnected causes of decay involves tackling such ‘wicked issues’ holistically and systemically.

However, whole systems approaches are not only relevant to upstream, preventative issues. For instance, to take a simple part of a complex issue, in many cases better intermediate care facilities, particularly for elderly people, can provide more appropriate treatment and may prevent the need for a stay in hospital or, at least, reduce the time spent there. This can result in a better transition back to the community and can free up hospital beds.

There are three significant aspects to the preventative dimension:

  • behavioural and cultural changes on the part of users/citizens/communities, as well as providers, is usually required;

  • multi-stakeholder collaboration in local developments is often required;

  • the balance is shifted from individuals demanding services as of right towards a balance of personal responsibilities and rights.

Moving towards prevention usually requires behavioural change; for example, better diet improves health; observing speed limits lowers the number of road deaths; recycling lessens the effects of environmental degradation and creates jobs for others. A simple illustration of this is people throwing rubbish out of cars, without thinking about the environmental impact or the cost of removal. Yet the same people want their own neighbourhoods kept clean by publicly provided services and don't want to pay more for the service.

A public good, such as clean air or safe neighbourhoods, can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of whether he contributes to its provision. Under ordinary circumstances, therefore, no one has an incentive to contribute to providing the public good, and too little is produced, causing all to suffer. (Putnam, 1993, p 163)

Moving up the scale, Britain is faced with disposing of ever-increasing amounts of domestic waste. The long-term solution in the past has been to tip it into holes in the earth – landfill. But this ‘solution’ is becoming increasingly problematic because of public opposition, European directives and the recognition of land contamination. There are three broad alternatives: incineration, recycling, and waste minimisation and resource productivity – ‘waste represents matter in the wrong place’ (Murray, 1999). While landfill and incineration are curative, recycling and minimisation are preventative and support each other. Murray describes these two approaches to waste management as contending modernities “at odds with each other. They embody different organisational cultures, one representing the old industrial order, the other the new” (p 31). This is not to do with public versus private sector, but with the issue of individual responsibilities – a neat illustration of the implications of preventative approaches for individual behaviour.

(p.14) There are also clear connections with the top-down/bottom-up dilemma; faced with a complex challenge such as waste management, top-down target setting does not work:

Recycling is one of those activities that everybody supports in principle, but in the UK it has failed to take off. In 1995 the Government set a target of 25 per cent recycled household waste by the millennium. Since then the rate has risen by just two per cent to a miserable 8 per cent. (Murray, 1999, p 5)

However, governments and public authorities fear the accusation of acting as a nanny state; of telling ‘the public’ what to do. This is a key challenge and it has its parallels with those who lead organisations and partnerships. In the writing of Heifetz (1994), ‘adaptive work’ is core to leadership. In other words, leaders have a core role in assisting others to face up to challenges, including addressing the conflicts between the values they hold dear and the realities that they and their organisations face. But it seems that ‘setting tough targets’ (on things they have no control over) has become a displacement activity for proper understanding and leadership. It also passes the responsibility somewhere else – in this case to local authorities.

Dilemma four – Consulting and involving people

Do people need to be consulted or involved, or both? There are several tough questions here. What is meant by the terms consultation, participation, involvement and empowerment, as used by those concerned? Why are people being asked to contribute? What differences will this consultation or involvement make? And, when organisations consult, are they really only doing this to conform to higher authority?

Paul Brickell argues that traditional forms of public consultation actually prevent the direct, practical involvement of people in sorting out their own problems. Communities become ‘citizens in committee’:

The people who attend the Ward Forum, whether residents, councillors or officers, are actually deeply concerned about the neighbourhood, but the structure casts participants in roles that leave them frustrated and unhappy with each other. The residents' role is to bring their problems along and to hand them over to the officers, with varying levels of abuse. There are no other lines in their script. It is certainly not envisaged that they might have any part in solving the problems. The officers' role is on the one hand to promise to solve the problems, and on the other to explain why they were unable to solve the problems brought to the previous meeting. Since the same types of problem are endlessly recycled from one meeting to the next, this can be a challenging part to play. The officers are not failing to solve the problems because they are bad or incompetent people, but rather because their resources and energies are simply outstripped by the ability of people (p.15) to generate problems. Occasionally a senior officer appears as a deus ex machina to explain the latest bright idea for improving service delivery or for regenerating the neighbourhood. The script says that the residents' role in this circumstance is to comment sagely on the proposals, to own them, to adopt them and to love them. More usually, they assemble themselves into a kind of Greek chorus to rubbish the idea and to give a dozen reasons why it won't work – and in eleven of these the residents are probably right. The councillors' role is to referee, unless the officers are smart enough to make them carry the can. Instead of involving and empowering residents, the Ward Forum alienates and disempowers everybody and the Park remains derelict. The Ward Forum is neither unique nor unusual. Structures like it are strewn across the local democratic landscape of east London and elsewhere. (Brickell, 2000, pp 32–3)

The ‘community in committee’ scenario leads to widespread disillusionment and cynicism and blocks the contribution of local knowledge and local people. The participatory tools intended to empower people actually maintain their exclusion from decision and action on the ‘wicked issues’. ‘Consultation fatigue’ is exacerbated by the lack of a joined-up approach as each company, department, health organisation and police authority does its own thing. Community capacity building, neighbourhood renewal and sustainable change in general requires people to work together and support each other's efforts. Joined-up action on the ground fundamentally alters the relationship between the agencies of delivery and the public and is far more cost-effective from a holistic perspective.

Leadership that counts – handling these dilemmas within organisations

To meet these challenges and reconcile these dilemmas requires a lot of leadership by a lot of people. They present general challenges to the workings of societies – to the improvement of our lives as citizens. They also present more specific challenges to leaders of individual organisations. Top-down, hierarchical leadership does not engage the hearts and minds of employees. One-way consultation through formal written documents, often written in managerial or professional jargon, is no way to engage the public in improving services or regenerating neighbourhoods. And, particularly for public and voluntary sector organisations, working in isolation to develop curative solutions for consumers means ignoring the opportunity to work ‘upstream’ with partners on preventative approaches that will enhance citizens' lives. In summary, old leadership recipes will not deliver the agenda explored in this book.

It is for this reason that we see the idea of ‘leadership that keeps the big picture in view’ as one of the Five Keys to whole systems development.

Yet, it is our contention that the practice of leadership needs to be relearnt and re-energised if whole systems development is to become a reality rather than fine rhetoric and empty promises. In too many organisations we see the (p.16) spread of managerialist, low-trust cultures that store up great long-term problems for both public and private organisations:

  • According to a Gallup poll, 80% of UK workers lack any real commitment to their jobs. The survey estimates the cost to the UK economy of poor employee retention, high absenteeism and low productivity at billions of pounds (Scase, 2001a).

  • Organisation design by itself is not an answer to deep-seated problems of disengagement. In a low-trust culture, apparently enlightened changes can produce quite opposite outcomes. Instead of positive, engaged leaders, the result can be despotic little Hitlers. Instead of committed, productive employees, cynical timekeepers. As is now becoming apparent, this new British disease is as devastating for public-sector organisations as it is in large corporations (Scase, 2001b).

  • McKinsey figures show that in manufacturing the UK lags behind the US by 39 per cent overall – a gap that is growing. The difference, concludes McKinsey, is not investment but people management. The proof lies with lacklustre British plants taken under the wing of US or Japanese managers; these regularly outperform UK-managed rivals by up to 80% (Caulkin, 2001a).

  • A Mori survey into attitudes to change among local government staff elicited the following responses:

    • 74% agreed with the statement ‘I understand the need for change’

    • 55% agreed with ‘I support the need for change’

    • 52% agreed with ‘I look forward to change as a challenge’

    • 30% agreed that ‘The reasons for change are well communicated to me’

    • only 22% said that ‘Change here is well managed’ (Audit Commission, 2001)

The quest for greater accountability for outputs and outcomes has gone so far that many people in organisations are drowning in floods of bureaucracy emanating from above, which result in compliance, meaningless number chasing and low-trust cultures. Moves towards whole systems methods and ways of working can produce remarkable results, but they need to be founded on realism about the opportunities for, and the problems and dilemmas of, implementation and change. To lead in these directions takes courage and commitment to two value-based propositions:

  • Leading as if people really matter – reinventing change management from positive Theory Y assumptions about people and their capabilities, understandings and possibilities.

  • Meeting differently – changing the ways in which we meet and engage with each other.

(p.17) The challenge for those in top jobs can perhaps be summarised in a graphic image:

Our constructs of leadership … have been built around … the powerful individual taking charge. This aspect of leadership is like the whitecaps on the sea – prominent and captivating, flashing in the sun. But to think about the sea solely in terms of the tops of the waves is to miss the far vaster and more profound phenomenon out of which such waves arise – it is to focus attention on the tops and miss the sea beneath. And so leadership may be much more than the dramatic whitecaps of the individual leader, and may be more productively understood as the deep blue water we all swim in when we work together. (Drath and Palus, 1994, p 25)

The new leadership ‘game’ is engagement and involvement, not hierarchical domination, and effective leadership involves the many rather than the few. These ideas are explored in more detail in Chapter Four. Chapter Two explores the notion of whole systems development in some depth.


(1) Where Management is spelt with a capital ‘M’, this denotes the use of the alchemical and abstract form driven by the MMV. Where management – or more usually managing – starts with a lower case, it refers to an active engagement with the concrete world of doing.