A cog creating change in its environment graphic

+ Setting up systems leadership on a project basis could help organisations accept system wide activities as they are ‘not forever’. As these activities become more normalised, it should become easier to accept them as business-as-usual.

Despite the best of intentions, large, multi-dimensional organisations typically find coordinated efforts at integration and efficiency difficult to implement. I think this may be due to a fear of connected and systems-led working and collaboration becoming a new permanent norm’ which stifles or scares organisations into doing nothing. 

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) often struggles with this issue, failing to deliver system wide improvements, undermined by reactive, counteracting organisational plans. To achieve the desired change, organisations like the NHS need to start working in a way that is integrated and system-led, one that allows the individual organisations that make up the NHS to come together and work more effectively.

Organisational boundaries limit interconnected work
For the NHS, achieving system wide-efficiency is vital when central government funding is under pressure, particularly if the range and quality of services to patients is to be maintained. But achieving this when leaders work in silos is impossible, meaning that efficiency only results in cuts, rather than more effective patient care. 

Despite the clear mandate to start working in this way, organisations are still struggling to see past their organisational boundaries and work in this interconnected fashion. In the NHS’s own words, there is a common concern that lower-level ‘organisational priorities will trump whole-system plans’. A failure to overcome this issue means that the ‘transformational plans’ recently produced across the NHS, ones required by the UK Government, are likely to fail. This also represents a further considerable waste of time, effort and resources. 

So how do big organisations enable ‘systems leaders’? The NHS has started to develop its thinking on this issue, using leadership academies to examine core competencies and understand how leaders could better connect and share learning. 

Short-term projects can create a new culture
One solution to this issue might be to encourage organisations to set up temporary, two-five year projects to support their transformation plans. In many Arup projects, designers frequently need to develop teams that collaborate by working across existing organisational structures, creating a new culture from lots of different organisations to meet a complex end goal. 

There are many recent examples of this kind of large-scale leadership, collaboration and transformation that the NHS could learn from. For example, during the London 2012 Olympics, London Transport created a Co-ordination Centre comprised of several organisations in order to coordinate travel throughout the city during this busy period. In creating this temporary group, the project team took clear steps to ensure a system-wide approach. Rather than basing work on the individual organisations’ existing ways of working, employees were encouraged to attend secondments in each other’s organisations and to learn about differences in culture. Organisations had to accept that they would lose staff for a defined period of time for this greater cause, and individuals were encouraged to sign-up to their new shared culture. 

Providing NHS employees with the mandate to set up these temporary team structures for defined lengths of time could help achieve these system-level improvements and reduce the commitment to existing, siloed priorities. 

In other words, setting up ‘systems leadership’ on a project basis could help organisations to accept these large initiatives, as they are ‘not forever’. Yet as these activities become more familiar, they should become business-as-usual, achieving the improvements needed. 

What would you do to support transformational change across a complex organisational system?