On innovation within complex adaptive systems

At the RSA, we believe that when we think about the pursuit of progressive social change, we should care as much about how we achieve that change as about the goals we pursue. There are two broad challenges that this presents. The first is developing the ability to think systemically and see the wide range of actors and influences around a particular issue. This clearly speaks to the complexity of social issues and the fact that achieving change in a world ever more defined by complexity is difficult. Often a solution is agreed for a particular issue in isolation from this wider systemic context. 

The second is developing the capacity to act like an entrepreneur to overcome path dependency. Typically underpinning the implementation of solutions, path dependency is the reliance on and rigid adherence to previous decisions and linear implementation plans. By the time a solution has been designed, a plan developed and policy and budgetary sign-off received, the system conditions impacting the issue have often evolved and changed. This is the nature of such complex social issues we are working to address. We argue that to effectively address these challenges we need agile, iterative and responsive means of implementation, not a perfect plan. 

System leadership is all about collaboration and convening, bringing the constituent parts together to see the whole. How we collaborate in these increasingly complex, networked times is of vital importance to all in the public services. It relies on working together towards a shared goal through consensus. This is the utopian idea of ‘joined-up government’ that has historically struggled to make the transition from the stakeholder roundtable to genuine joint-working on the ground. We shouldn’t therefore assume that collaboration is as simple as bringing stakeholders together and that problem-solving will ensue. The process by which a multi-agency group works together is rarely examined, but it is ultimately the relational dynamics that foster or foil a collective commitment to change. And at its worst, collaboration can foster new pyramids of hierarchical power and authority aside from those existing in more formal bureaucratic structures. 

We see that those organisations that are working effectively to achieve social change, deploy an ongoing, collaborative, iterative process. This is not one that proceeds in a traditional linear fashion with a clear start and end point, a process often stifled by project plans and governance. It is one characterised by a rebalancing of relationships, judicious risk-taking, the development of a supportive culture, and a recognition that not working across traditional boundaries is not an option. These are the factors I find in my research as the more successful areas are, in one way or another, moving beyond traditional approaches to partnership working and experimenting with new approaches.  

Our insights from cultural theory – which states that sources of power in any social context lie in the actions of the individual, the community and the hierarchy – map clearly against the findings in this research. The entrepreneurial edge focuses on liberating the agency for change within individual staff and citizens; the shared ethos focuses on developing a solidaristic response to an issue; and the system focus addresses the hierarchical and systemic challenges. We argue that for places to successfully work in partnership they need to be cognisant of these sources of power and cultivate them equally.

Collectively we label our approach as the need to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur, and it forms our emergent way of thinking about how to achieve the change we want to make in the world. We recognise that making change in systems as complex as – say – health and social care may seem insurmountable, especially when compounded by ongoing financial challenges. ‘Think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ is an attempt to provide a finer-grained approach, comprising a number of insights, tools and techniques to help people more effectively tackle these complex challenges. 

As one interviewee in a recent research piece told us, “if you look at the projections for the next few years, I don’t think there is any other way than working as a system. I don’t think any one organisation can solve the problems facing us.” The places we saw that were working most effectively together were demonstrating clear system leadership of place backed with the flexibility to respond rapidly to changing circumstances. We think this is crucial to the improvement of public services.

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