29th May 2018, words by Julian Corner
What does effectiveness look like when working in situations of complexity? How do we understand what to do or where to start? How do we attribute results to our actions? These questions go to the heart of our feelings of competence and agency.
When you choose to contend with complexity, as we do at Lankelly Chase, you start to realise how professionalised structures help to keep such troubling questions at bay. Projects, programmes, hierarchies, funding cycles, milestones, service level agreements, budgets, key performance indicators all feed our need for certainty and order. The messy unboundaried web of interdependencies recedes behind a dense framework of process and structure, and with it our feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
Except, of course, the complex reality remains undiminished, and containing it with our structures proves as slippery as clambering onto an unruly lilo in a choppy sea. Worse still, our need for orderly structure can make a bad situation worse. It obscures our appreciation of the issues we need to address, leading us to act as if the situation weren’t in fact complex, and so denying the lived experience of people caught up in the web.
Lankelly Chase’s mission is to change the systems that perpetuate interlocking disadvantages such as homelessness, mental ill health and substance misuse. Until recently, our default mode was to fund interventions and projects for 3-6 years. At some level, we knew that life cycle problems could not be solved by grant cycle solutions, but as a relatively small grant funder what else could we do? Answering this question required us to face the possibility that despite our mission and good intentions we might be playing our own part in a perpetuating system.
For us, this came down to a judgement about whose needs were being met: were we funding projects, interventions and organisations because this was genuinely the most effective contribution a funder of our modest size could make or because we felt comfortable funding projects, interventions and organisations? While realism about our size has always been critical to how we understand our effectiveness, it became increasingly clear that it had led us to reduce our understanding of the problem to the scale of our preferred response to it.
As an independent funder, we felt we had a responsibility to resist reductivism: “if we can’t then who can?” But feeling responsible and knowing how to act are not the same. We are so conditioned to operate within reductive structures that stripping them away leaves us with very little. The paralysing confusion and anxiety all come crashing in.
We have just published a revised description of our approach to change which sets out how we seek to take action in a situation of high complexity. The thinking behind it can be summed up as follows: Lankelly Chase has a growing conviction that the outcomes we seek can only happen through the actions of whole systems. Although there are many parts of a system – projects, workers, organisations, rules, funding, communities, institutions – that have a bearing on a particular disadvantage or harm, they are all continually affecting each other. No individual part exists or has an effect in isolation of the others. This leads us to think that sustainable change depends on the way all the parts interact.
What we find in the field of severe and multiple disadvantage is that the overwhelming majority of energy, attention and resource is dedicated to improving the parts of the system. This is understandable because those parts tend to be knowable and to an extent controllable, whereas the relationships between them take us into much less solid or definable territory. However, a collective focus on the parts has ultimately, in our view, been self-defeating because each can only be as good as its relationship with the rest.
Lankelly Chase decided to shift from this majority position to focus on growing the health of the relationships between the parts. Given how nebulous such a challenge could become, our first step was to ground our approach in the work of our many partners. We set about observing closely what effective relationships in situations of complexity actually look like, and what our partners needed in order to connect their part of the system effectively with the rest. We looked at what they were doing in many different contexts, and consulted widely with many different system actors, until we were able to distil our learning into nine system behaviours. (Some people call these system conditions or even pre-conditions.) We asserted that it was the presence of these behaviours in a system, rather than the action of any one organisation or project, that explained its effectiveness.
So then what? Given that we were moving into largely unoccupied territory, we knew that we couldn’t map out outcome-determined programmes, not least because they are so ill-suited to situations of high complexity. We decided that our role was to create the infrastructure that would enable us and our partners to explore how to create healthy systems. We had a specific purpose in mind: to work out what it would take to embody the system behaviours at a scale that would ultimately make a difference to outcomes.
The methodology we agreed on was action inquiry, which we characterise as acting our way into a new way of thinking through continual iteration and learning. We now use our resources, along with the independence, flexibility and longevity they allow, to create collaborative spaces for our partners to explore ways of building the health of systems, increasingly at the level of a place.
Frankly we don’t know where this new approach might take us, what ‘scale’ might look like or indeed whether the system behaviours will ultimately turn out to be right or helpful. Our current dream is of a critical mass of people thinking and acting in a more systemic way and thereby ‘tipping’ the way the whole system behaves. But we’ve no clear plan for how this might show up in the world, not least because we know best-laid plans don’t work with complexity. So returning to the opening question, what would the effectiveness of such a strategy look like?
Our Chair Myron Rogers has coined a very astute maxim: “the process you use to get to the future is the future you get”. This feels right to us, and we have taken it to mean that we at Lankelly Chase also have a responsibility to embody the nature of the change we want to see. Once you start to see yourself as part of – rather than apart from – a system, then a lack of congruence between how you act and how you want others to act shows up pretty quickly. It turns out that if you concern yourself with the health of a system, acting effectively and acting ethically start to look pretty much the same.
In publishing an updated account of our approach, our aim is to expose our thinking to many alternative perspectives so that they can help reveal our blind spots, connect our approach with many interrelated parts of the system, question its boundaries, and above all challenge the privileged space we hold in an unequal system. All of these are ethical concerns that connect directly with how we can judge our effectiveness in a complex system. Organisations are rarely the best judges of their own ethics and effectiveness, and can persuade themselves of many things. So we genuinely welcome the inconvenient truths as much as the odd bit of encouragement.
Read ‘Our approach to change’ here.