13th December 2018, words by Jenny Oppenheimer
As we enter month four of the third Systems Changers programme, a couple of pieces of received wisdom that were passed on to me when I started are playing out and beginning to make sense.
The first is that doing an action inquiry requires the Action Inquiry Manager (me!) to be alert, flexible, responsive and intuitive. It’s certainly not a prescriptive way of working, as an action inquiry should knit together information, research and practice as the inquiry proceeds. It needs me to understand how best to adapt and to be capable of challenging and adjusting my well-laid plans and anticipated results.
When we came together with The Children Society (TCS)and Point People to develop this version of the Systems Changers programme, our intention was to explore how we could develop the systemic capacity of a sector (the Youth Sector) by engaging with a defined cohort, i.e. frontline youth workers from a mix of youth sector organisations. However, for several reasons, it turned out that 80% of the programme intake were employed by TCS and this has been a challenge, both for the facilitators and for the design/content of the programme. Here, though, is where I have seen the value of an action inquiry mindset. The team have embraced the opportunity, have taken informed action and have redefined the question. Our new question will be looking at how to build more systemic capabilities across an organisation.
This leads me to the second observation about roles. People can place limitations on their role, often because of uncertainty, past experience or personal inhibitions. Yet these perspectives can sometimes be usefully confronted in an environment where inquiry and challenge are possible and encouraged.
TCS wants to change the system for the better for children and young people and believes a systems approach could help to do this. TCS sees its frontline workers as potential leaders for change, yet also recognises that most individuals will work within organisations and to ignore the role of these organisations would be missing a trick. The Systems Changers programme has the support of senior managers. There is also a dedicated team working on gathering and sharing the learning and, importantly, managers are encouraging the participants on the programme to experiment, challenge and be the change. One manager was heard saying to the group, ‘You are working on behalf of the young people first, not TCS.’ The freedom and authority to practice change and to focus on the problem, not the organisation, is helping participants to move beyond their initial role definitions and perhaps to begin to consider themselves system changers for the organisation and for the sector.