Radical changes, made together: the New Systems Alliance

A message written in chalk saying Together we will change the world

We’re part of the New System Alliance. Missed the launch? – catch up on ‘A Week of Conversations’ here.

Humans and labels

Humans are really good at giving things names or descriptions. We take comfort in labels and definitions because they help us sort a messy, untidy and chaotic world into manageable chunks. And in terms of knowing whether the chicken (or vegetarian option) in the fridge has gone off, that makes a lot of sense. They also can keep us away from danger, so warning us with big signs about electricity. “Labels keep you safe from salmonella and electrocution!” Not so powerful as a campaign slogan, but it’s true. It’s true, it’s simple, it’s easy.

Use by 2021. Beware: electricity. No Smoking in this area. Simple.

But labels, names and descriptions get messier when we’re talking about other humans. We invent labels and descriptions to help us navigate a complicated world.

We take comfort in labels and definitions because they help us sort a messy world into manageable chunks.

There’s a concept in studying how decisions are made, called ‘heuristics’ which is really interesting. As humans we use cognitive tools to make decisions easier for us, or quicker. For example, we’re trying to work out whether a sofa is the right size for a room. Unless you need to know the exact size, you might sort of look at your hands spread them out, and make an educated guess.

That is a heuristic tool. It reduces the cognitive load – brain strain – of that decision.

Heuristics in system change

And we all do it. Every day. All the time. Some of us might call it that gut feeling, some of us call it a rule of thumb. There are lots of different heuristic tools we use. There’s a lot of research out there about it, and a lot of ongoing debate. Some argue it is good and can lead to quicker decisions, while others warn against the potential for lower quality decisions.

I’m not taking a view on that – each heuristic tool is different, and each person that instinctively, subconsciously uses them is different. But it is important to understand this concept: we use these tools, they make our decisions easier, and they are informed and built by our own existing assumptions.

But what have heuristics got to do with systems change? Well, sort of everything.

Our entire system is a collective set of heuristic tools, built on a whole pile of humans each with their own set of heuristic tools. This makes it hard, incredibly hard, to pick it apart, to change it, to sweep it away. To make it worse, many of those heuristic tools compete, actively contradict, or otherwise challenge each other. The result is a gnarly, growling, grunting mess of shifting goals, decisions and views that result in a system that is – to all intents and purposes – failing.

[The system] is a gnarly, grunting mess of shifting goals, decisions and views […] that to all intents and purposes is failing.

But what I’m about to say is really key, and that’s why I’ve spent so long talking about something like heuristics (boreristics, am I right?).

The people within that system are not in it to make things fail. We are all part of that system, whether we are challenging it or not, to try to make things better. But the system makes that harder.

What exactly do we mean by “a system”?

The ‘system’ is built from many blocks. You’ve got some blocks from tradition, some blocks from new policy ideas, some blocks from research, some blocks from staff consultation, some blocks from experience and practice and much more.

That sounds complicated enough. But when considering what makes up each block, you realise that is formed from the assumptions and ‘heuristics’ of people, many from decades ago.

For example, substance policy, and just one of the “blocks”: public opinion. Many people use a heuristic tool called “escalation of commitment”. This is the idea that people will see that investment has been continuing for so long, and so much time and resource has been put in, that it simply shouldn’t stop (see also, Sunk Cost fallacy). So we have an established idea that the ‘war on drugs’ should be continued even though it has utterly failed.

Substance policy is obviously much more complicated than that, and this is just one block from the whole system.

My view is that although we often try to talk about ‘the system’ as if it is some external, distant, robotic tyrant, we need to face up to a grim reality: the system is us.

The system is the way we think about people we work with. The system is all those tiny mental shortcuts we take to make decisions, the moments of judgement, the assumptions we make. All these tiny mental transactions that have created the processes we work to, which shape the lives of the people we work with.

Yes, it is much more complicated. But let’s start with what we can change. And that is our own approaches and attitudes, as well as recognising that the system we work within is flawed and not fit for purpose.

We often try to talk about the system as if it’s some external, distant, robotic tyrant […] the grim reality is – it’s us.

Our hopes for the New Systems Alliance

That is why I am really, really excited about Platfform being part of a wider alliance for systems change across the UK.

We’ve talked a lot about systems change in Wales. The country has led the way on trauma-informed approaches for example – people from across housing, mental health and many other sectors, coming together and not using this concept to tweak things, but to ask how we can make big, long-lasting changes to the way we work. To change the system.

Mayday Trust, in England, have looked at their way of working and taken huge risks and big steps in changing the system. Their Person-led, Transitional and Strengths-based Response (PTS) is revolutionary in the way it challenges and asks us to listen to people. It is an exciting approach that we’re looking at in Platfform, with new ‘asset coaches’ now in place to drive this change forward.

These are just two examples of systems change approaches, and there will be more to see, more to find, more to trial. It is the start of a long journey, but it is exciting. We are committed as a group of organisations, to change. We will break down the barriers that people face, we will hold a mirror to our own shortcomings, and we will build consensus for a new way.

We really want people with us on this journey.

If you’re interested, catch up on the powerful conversations we had during the launch.

We will break down the barriers that people face, we will hold a mirror to our own shortcomings, and we will build consensus for a new way.