A systems-based leadership strategy for implementing change

Leadership advice given to the Munro Review (1)

Looking ahead and assuming that the Munro Review’s eventual recommendations will be accepted by Government ministers, implementing the changes will call for leadership at many points in the political and managerial system. Beyond implementation, running ongoing child protection services on the new basis will draw on new forms and new perceptions of leadership based on the systems approach advocated by the Review in Part 1: A Systems Analysis. While leadership will be needed to make the changes, the Review makes clear that leadership (and management) practice will also need to change.

It will be helpful for the Review to point out, and as far as possible advise on, these twin leadership/management challenges. A successful formula for the future of child protection does not of itself guarantee either successful implementation or subsequent operation. The various partnering authorities – individually and at their interfaces – will themselves then need to consider their leadership and management implications and choices from the point at which they are starting, both of making the transformation to a systems-based approach and then of sustaining this new way of working and relating.

A consequence of the managerial fallout of Peter Connelly’s death in the London Borough of Haringey was training for senior managers mandated by the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of this political initiative, but there are two points to make.

First, while there can be a need for training in such circumstances, training is sometimes invoked for political reasons (being seen to do something that the public can understand and accept, and to deflect responsibility), where it is really the system that is in most need of ‘fixing’. Not being managers, politicians often do not understand how systems work – though top executives often make the same mistake. (Training can, of course, play a crucial role in supporting the system changes.)

Secondly, the political response to the tragedy, mistakes and outcry flows from a command-and-control mindset, and it probably assumes a service that is run on a broadly similar set of hierarchical principles. Such beliefs about power, structure, individual responsibility and reporting fit with a compliance and control culture and the other characteristics identified in Professor Munro’s ‘Atomistic’ or functional/ reductionist model. A switch to a holistic/systemic approach brings forth a different view of the leadership role and of professional and managerial learning.

That new perspective is crucial. Effective child protection is complex and involves working across boundaries with various partners and joining up various interests and fields of expertise. The service can and will be provided successfully only by a system, not simply by many individuals, functions and partners working at high levels of professionalism. Families’, children’s and others’ experience of child protection is principally a consequence of how well that system works as a whole, even though at any given moment they may be dealing with just a few individual professionals, and may have limited points of contact with the system. Nonetheless, services are provided by systems, not by individuals. The need for personal professionalism is of course a given, and this will need revising in the light of the Munro Review. But what systems thinking adds to the individual element is to be found in all that surrounds these professionals and functions and what happens in the gaps and spaces that either binds them together into an effective whole, or fails them as things fall down gaps, or squanders the mutually creative ‘emergent’ opportunities afforded by spaces.

“Stop polishing the fish and tackle the water they swim in”

(from Think, Manage and Lead Systemically, Business Strategy Review, London Business School, Summer 2010, W  Tate)

There are implications in this for the nature of the leadership needed, role and activity at various levels and in each of the partner organisations, including inspection. Leadership should be seen both as a property of individuals and of the system. The system is required to manifest leadership, such that people’s experience is of a well-led system, more than as having some good leaders.