A system is a group of individuals or an organisation working together or interacting as part of a network. We believe that everyone in the public sector should be a systems leader.
That means being a leader in a system, rather than a leader of a system. Here are ten tips to help you embrace your inner systems leader.
1. Put the citizen at the centre
From the moment you scope out a problem to the moment you start designing a solution, you should put the citizen at the centre. It’s also important to establish collective understanding of situation, identify mutual areas of interest, and the shared vision of the outcome you want.
2. Mobilise people
Identify partners across the system and work to understand their perspectives. Challenge your assumptions on who is relevant and who isn’t. If everyone is familiar to you, then perhaps you haven’t mapped widely enough. You should encourage people in your teams to build networks too. Recognise all perspectives are valid. Look to build relationships around areas of mutual interest.
3. Keep learning
Take the time to learn about the situation. Be realistic about the time it will take to undertake the work. This may involve managing expectations of others.
4. Promote collective leadership
Try to prioritise building trust and a good working relationship with people across the system. This takes time but go for informal coffees and actively listen.
5. Work through tension
Tension and conflict are to be expected, so try to focus on the areas of mutual interest. Identify incentives. You shouldn’t seek to change or block others plans unless they seriously undermine the collective endeavour.
6. Navigate the politics
Do your best to navigate through the internal and national politics. It’s a worthwhile thing to do given the long term nature of systems change. Understand power structures, including where informal power lies, organisational structures, reporting lines, decision rights, accountabilities as well as culture and history.
7. Be flexible. Co-create solutions
Be flexible in co-creating solutions by encouraging iteration, adaptation and evolution. Don’t start with a fixed idea of what the right answer looks like.
8. Secure resource commitments
Secure commitments from the system. Invest in a small central secretariat function ideally staffed from different stakeholders. Get the right people in the room regardless of grade. The person with the highest grade may not be the right person.
9. Establish accountability
Work out who is accountable for what. People should have a clear mandate to operate. Agree how to monitor progress, setting appropriate targets for the stage of project.
10. Work out the risk appetite
Work out the level of risk different stakeholders are prepared to accept. Agree a shared approach to risk across the system.
These top tips were developed by the Cross-government Systems Leadership and Accountability Group sponsored by Nick Dyer and Paul Kett. This group is made up of volunteers from the Department for Education (DfE), Department for International Development (DfID) and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Thank you to everyone who helped shape and develop these tips. Particular thanks go to Karen Clark from the Organisation Development, Design and Learning Expert Service.