Case Study Changing the social care system with action learning

Introduction

Lankelly Chase Foundation works to bring about change that will transform the quality of life of people who face severe and multiple disadvantage.

The ‘Promoting Change Network’ (PCN) has been set up by Lankelly Chase to foster learning, and supports 40 or so organisations which receive funding from the Foundation. This is in recognition of the challenges they face in their work to alleviate severe and multiple disadvantages – combinations of problems around homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, violence and abuse, and chronic poverty.

Action learning is a supportive intervention, very much ‘pulled’ by members of the PCN, who had the opportunity to join one of two regional Action Learning Sets covering London and the North of England/Glasgow. The two action learning sets met five and six times respectively between November 2014 and July 2015.  The set members were all leading Lankelly Chase-funded PCN projects.

Leading in complex environments

The challenges of bringing about changes in the lives of people experiencing severe and multiple disadvantages are complex, reflecting the complexity of the systems and services serving these groups of people. The Promoting Change Network brings together “outstanding organisations across the country working to shine a light on hidden aspects of the experience of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage, shift commissioning practices, find new ways to give power to service users and provide excellent, person-centred, transformative services”.

Leaders of these largely Third Sector organisations have to grapple with systemic challenges on a number of levels  as they guide these projects:

  • The funding environment, local statutory budget constraints and the sustainability challenges facing the Third Sector, including the difficulties of sustaining change coming from time-limited funding of projects
  • Increasing pressures on health, public health, social care and housing services as population level changes impact on services received by those people with complex needs, which include multiple disadvantages
  • Commissioning strategies looking to integrate services, promote community and service user involvement in supporting people in need, whilst limited in capacity to commission change across the local system
  • Leading internal teams with different funding streams, responding to distressed service users, creating safety, engaging service users more in co-producing services
  • Operating in local and national environments where not all parties agree/cooperate, nor always share the same values, about how to respond to people with multiple disadvantage.

The pressures, confusion and dynamics of the environment are massive for these leaders. Where can they go to step back, to make sense and meaning of this complexity and change?

Action learning provided a generative, challenging method and process in which these leaders had opportunities to explore their own complex leadership challenges in a systematic, supportive way. The method is based on a combination of active listening/inquiry, helping the individual to explore the challenge in depth and consider options/actions to move it forward.  The ‘generative’ quality of open questioning encourages movement towards insight and action and reflection on the process. In the context of Lankelly Chase objectives, we considered challenges from the perspectives of system change and leadership of that change.

Over the five or six sessions, each member of each action learning set had two or three opportunities to bring an issue relating to their PCN project. The rest of the set members then provided the questioning process and observations to help the individual to explore her or his issue. In this context, there was often a resonance between the issue presented by one person and those issues of the other members; the process works to harness this whilst ensuring that the focus is always on the person bringing the issue at that time.

We also ‘checked-in’ at the start of each session and reviewed what they were learning about system change from exploring these real scenarios. Stephen Moss of Action Learning Associates facilitated each set.

Learning about system change, identified in the Action Learning Sets

Recurrent themes emerged from reflecting upon the issues and challenges being brought. These were developed with the sets and shared with the Lankelly Chase Team to feed into the knowledge-base and funding-policy development:

Enhanced Leadership at a system level is required

  • It is challenging leading a service organisation providing services to individuals and communities with complex needs, whilst influencing for whole system change (pulled in sometimes conflicting directions)
  • Experienced Leaders in the Third Sector who have pioneered and consolidated new approaches into sustainable and established organisations may need to be freed to impact on whole system change through developing a kind of ‘eldership’ role
    • Bringing-through successors to run operations
    • Focusing experience to influence the network of commissioners and local authority members and chief officers, health officers and providers
    • Bringing together Voluntary and Community Services to support needs – not competing but in collaboration
    • Helping establish sustainable responses to need locally – encouraging self-organising communities, whilst sharing ‘what works’
    • Providing advice and guidance

System change needs to be acknowledged by commissioners when they commission new, system-changing services:

  • How might the wider network of services need to change when commissioning/funding/supporting a project that is bringing about change through a service?
  • How might transition to person-centred services be funded in order to realise benefits from a whole systems approach?

There is a real tension between implementing ‘what works’ at scale and facilitating ground-up innovation and participation in communities:

  • Shows up in relationships within growing Third Sector organisations and their functions (controls vs empowered creativity working with chaotic clients)
  • Shows up between Third Sector innovators who grow and are under scrutiny – KPIs, Financial accountability, safeguarding – and funding agencies
  • What is the balance of applying the evidenced-based model with enabling local responses to local challenges and needs?
  • There are no universal truths – some things just feel right to do
  • Is ‘system change’ the right language? We need to focus on sharing values, intentions and culture

These insights build on earlier conclusions developed midway through the action learning process summarised in the following chart:

Chart

Learning and experience of participants

The following points summarise the learning expressed through the comments gathered in the final session of the two groups. In general:

  • Feedback identifies clearly-stated benefits of reflection and peer-based inquiry on individual capacity to work with complex and challenging issues in their work as leaders
  • They saw this intervention/support as part of the PCN package
  • Building trust and working together as a group to develop the methods takes a few sessions, but can lead to fresh insights to apply to their situations and new openness as a leader
  • The (action inquiry) methods are transferable to apply to leadership in own context

Going forward…

  • Highlights the learning about the power of inquiry in exploring challenges and working where there is conflict – shows that this approach has practical application to real issues
  • The importance and value of standing back and questioning your approach – when you are part of the system you want to change

I was surprised at how useful this has been. I learned most from the opportunity to listen to peers reflecting deeply and honestly on their work, because most of the issues discussed resonated with my own experiences and challenges. I learned a lot from the questions that were asked, which opened up new ways of thinking about my work… It has given me, as the leader of the organisation, opportunity to reflect and think about leadership issues and to engage in the sorts of conversations that I do not normally get a chance to have. I have learned a lot, I am a more reflective leader and I have strengthened networks and relationships with other people in this field.”

CEO, charity providing services and community activities in an inner-city centre, to people with a range of disadvantages.

Participant comments

“Incredibly useful experience…have done a lot of personal development work over the years, and I think this was great – the group was a valuable resource “

“Unexpected – not just getting ideas, but helping me to develop my own thinking”

“Helped with the (LC) project – I tried to do my element of the project feeling it is my responsibility, but now I am working with others and understand it is more powerful and interesting to be open help and working with others”

“Learned huge amount, not just presenting my issue, but also listening and gaining from the insights offered

“I’m thinking in a differently way about my work (questioning)”

“Initially uncomfortable…see need for space for reflecting (now)”

“Valued the space and the high trust and mutual respect that developed; space to focus – supportive with like-minded people (I can often feel isolated)

PCN is big and can be difficult to find a space to ‘be in it’

“Hearing how other people have identified challenges to discuss and how they plan to overcome also gave a lot of useful learning”

“Everybody’s issues, also have been my issues”

“Enjoyable, nurturing and left much to ponder upon. I listened a lot and gave me time out from having to come up with the answers. Found it reassuring because I have been around a long time and it allowed me to be involved in something that involved peeling back the layers and reminding ourselves that these are the issues that we all wrestle with on a daily basis.