Why is change so difficult? Layers of Leadership. Structural, Conceptual and Emotional

Our collective challenge is not simply delivering outputs more efficiently — its mobilising the capabilities we have to benefit the places we all share.

The challenge of leadership in places, and why its failing now

We are really good at identifying or describing challenges. We also have plenty of plans and strategies. We also have very common narratives in sectors like health about the characteristics of our current ‘problems’ and how they might be addressed. But we are really very poor at doing something about these issues or challenges — we regularly fail to act to address them, fail to mobilise the resources needed, and fail to change (in a meaningful sense) the way we allocate those resources. ‘Place leadership’ is failing now because of this gap between identifying issues and mobilising capability to address them.

Why is this failure occurring? My view is that we are failing as leaders in places because we only consider the visible aspects of leadership — the obvious and visible manifestations of the activity we conduct.

We need to get beyond the visible — beyond structure. We need to name, interrogate and change the conceptual frameworks that govern our systems and decision making.

I understand this issue in terms of layers. There are — I observe — three big layers of leadership in practice that we need to interrogate and understand if we are really to make any progress on place based leadership. These layers are Structural, Conceptual and Emotional.

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

Layer 1 is about structure and it is visible

This layer is the organisations to which we all belong and to which we hand the responsibility to work to address issues on our behalf. It is also the Gant chart in a programme plan describing how a programme will develop and be coordinated. It is the governance mechanisms that are set out in policy papers or service change proposals, its the oversight and the scrutiny that we call all see.

This layer — the structure — is necessary but it isn’t sufficient, and the biggest mistake we make collectively is to act as though the right structure is all we need to address our issues or solve our challenges. But the structure isn’t the leadership — it’s a mechanism by which the leadership is applied and manifested. On its own it’s not enough.

And there is also a trap here which we often fail to avoid — if all we think about is the structure, then we end up constrained by it. This is a big problem — we have existing structures (local authorities etc) which operate in certain ways based on operating models designed around the challenges of decades ago.

So, structure is important but it isn’t the same as leadership. Also, we need to regard the structure as instrumental — a means with some end, some purpose other than its own ongoing existence. If we only think about the structure, we won’t deliver change — and worse we will end up being prisoners of it.

To be successful we need to think about change and leadership not just in terms of structures, but also in terms of the conceptual frameworks we use and the emotional context of the work.

The second layer is Conceptual and it is both visible and invisible

We need to be ruthless with ourselves — what actually guides the decisions we make and what does that say about how we actually think about value? We need to shine a light on the conceptual frameworks that trap us in practice, and then we need to tear them down.

The biggest thing I think I have learned in the last 5 years is about the importance of the conceptual frameworks that shape and constrain our thinking and work in practice. It is essential that we get to grips with this layer of leadership — because without doing so we will only ever be tinkering with the existing system within which we find ourselves and fail to change the nature and outputs of that system.

For example, a huge amount of energy and effort is expended on transformation in the health system without addressing the day to day constraints we impose on ourselves in structures like the standard business case format used in most NHS organisations. This document is the visible manifestation of a conceptual framework that is based implicitly (you won’t find this written down) on a theory of value that only benefit and savings made in the next 2 years really matter.

I’m exaggerating slightly to make a point here but it’s true that there is a pervasive conceptual framework in the NHS and other public sector bodies (the current financial position makes this worse) that value and benefit is essentially financial and needs to be delivered quickly to be of value. The Outcome of this framework in practice is that we fail to properly value non-financial benefit and certainly benefits that accrue over decades not years.

In practice, this is at the heart of our collective failure to invest in ‘prevention’ in any meaningful way. It is a textbook example of how we are collectively being trapped by a conceptual framework that determines how we work in practice — and in a way that we fail to be properly conscious of.

These conceptual frameworks are everywhere. Some are visible, some aren’t — but they all determine practice. For the macro version of this, see my other blog on the Bristol project — which sets out how the lack of an explicit theory of value in health systems means we are trapped by a series of implicit, never stated, frameworks that fundamentally stand in the way of us being able to achieve the things we tell ourselves we want. We say that we want a health system and not an illness system but there is almost nothing in the way we currently spend time and resources that demonstrates this in practice. Why? Because we are trapped by a conceptual framework that we never even discuss.

How do we address this? The first step is straightforward enough but requires a degree of collective rigour and self awareness that we seldom muster. Simply put, our biggest challenge is to consider the conceptual frameworks that actually shape the way we work in practice and determine decision making priorities now.

Structure, Gant charts and governance is not enough — we need to see clearly the mental cages we put around ourselves and ask if the world we want will ever be delivered unless we change these. We are trapped and we don’t even know it — the first step out of the cave is to see your situation clearly.

The third layer is Emotional and it is invisible

The third layer that determines how leadership in systems and at the civic level work in practice is emotional. It concerns basic but complex notions of identity and individual purpose.

It is my experience that most leaders in places are still operating from a basic position of being organisational leaders trying to do extra system stuff as opposed to participants in a whole system or place in which they can have a positive impact.

This distinction is not academic because it determines the way decisions get made in practice and it also constrains to a severe extent the perceived ‘art of the collectively possible’.

Here is why. The first issue is that individuals (and other decision making fora like Boards) still largely make decisions on the basis of organisational interest. This is entirely understandable give the framework of incentives that exist in something like the health system but it also the result of basic individual assumptions about the legitimate scope of individual and collective decision making. Leaders of organisations on the whole still frame their purpose in an organisational way and make decisions accordingly. When asked ‘what team they play for?’ people still reply with the name of an organisation rather than (as would be entirely legitimate for a hospital or local authority CEO) the name of a place.

If individuals feel emotionally connected to organisations rather than some civic construct, they will ultimately default to making decisions in the interests of individuals (ego-driven glory seeking for example) or organisations — they will not be making decisions on the basis of the interests of places or communities.

This creates hidden barriers to real system or civic working which makes it difficult to solve problems together — even those that we can identify. The other impact is that we fail to properly bring to bear the influence of major institutions in places. Here is an example — the CEO of a hospital Trust will of course be focused on delivering safe, high quality and financially viable services. But they are also in charge of a major employer (both Bristol hospital trusts employ 16000 people between them) and they will also be responsible for 5–10% of all the road journeys that take place in a city. Should they be using these connections and influences in a positive way — to become exemplar employers for example? Of course they should, but the extent to which this wider opportunity is exercised is varied — some organisations play this wider role and some don’t. What it seems to boil down to is whether the CEO feels basic emotional commitment to place as well as organisation. At the moment, it’s a happy accident where this takes place and accordingly opportunities to have a wider positive impact in places go begging every day.

The way to address this starts with talking about it. How do people really understand their identity and their responsibilities? Are people just leaders in organisations or do they also see their role in a wider context. For me the challenges faced in most places today require the latter — we must act as participants in places and see the leadership challenge as maximising positive impact in places, not simply delivering organisational objectives that may as well be produced by a large black box devoid of any geographical or social setting.

I work to make places better for the people who live in them. Collaboration and leadership is how this happens. I write about these things.

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