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Embracing complexity to do what’s best for people

Toby Lowe and Dawn Plimmer discuss funding, commissioning and managing services in a world where relationships rather than KPIs or simplistic numerical targets are what matters most.

With colleagues at Newcastle Business School (Northumbria University) and Collaborate, we’re learning from those who are adopting new approaches to working in complexity: practice that we’re calling “Human, Learning, Systems” (HLS).

The reason we’re doing this work is because we’ve seen first hand the failure of New Public Management (NPM) approaches, based on target-based performance management, to effectively support and improve public and voluntary sector practice in complex environments. Wherever you go in the UK, when you talk with those doing social action you will hear stories of NPM approaches wasting precious resources, and sapping the motivation of those forced to work under their auspices. You don’t have to dig far to find multiple examples of NPM having a devastating impact on people’s lives.

Why does this happen? Because NPM is designed for a world that is simple and linear. A world in which problems have known solutions, and which if you do X, then Y happens. In those circumstances, it can be sensible to set targets, or have Key Performance Indicators based around sticking to known processes.

But the world of social action, in which the public and voluntary sector operates, is mostly not like that. The world of social action is often complex.

We know that social action is complex because:

  • there are a variety of strengths and needs amongst those we serve, and these look different from different perspectives
  • the outcomes people desire are produced by many factors interacting together in an ever changing way
  • people are working in systems that are beyond the control of any one of the actors in the system

In the words of one of the organisations we worked with, this requires us to “embrace the mess to do what’s best for people, not what’s comfortable.”

Embracing complexity demands a different form of management. (This is exactly what the research evidence tells us). As leaders and managers, and those who support them, we can and must do better.

This is why we have been seeking to learn from those who are trying to do better, and help to share that practice. This is why we think that the Human, Learning, Systems approach which we have uncovered is important.

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