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“You may not have heard about them,” begins the introduction to Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century. And if you’re a member of the Q community, you may well be one and not know it.

Systems conveners, the book explains, are people in any role who focus on enabling “sustainable change, across challenging silos, in complex social landscapes, amid changing circumstances”. They won’t necessarily have the term in their job description – although one local authority in England is now specifically recruiting them.

So what is systems convening?

Systems Convening mindset
a diagram depicting the mindset of a systems convenor

The term came about when the authors of the book, pioneers of ‘communities of practice’ Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, began to see people who were playing a little-noticed – yet vital – catalyst role above and across individual communities.

Systems convening is an emerging approach that looks at a social landscape with all its separate and related practices through a wide-angle lens. Conveners spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnerships that will bring different and often unlikely people together to engage in learning across boundaries.

The book has been created both for those who are already doing systems convening, and for those who may not be familiar with it and would like to know more. It puts systems convening into context, specifying and describing what it is, and what it is not.

Structured into three sections, the book opens with a series of portraits of systems conveners followed by examples of their work and a theoretical description of the four dimensions of the mindset of a systems convener.

Meet three Q members who are systems conveners

Isabel Ho

Isabel Ho is a therapeutic radiographer and founding member of the Q special interest group on radiotherapy quality. She spoke to the authors about establishing a community of practice for quality and safety in radiation oncology. This community aims to draw all of those involved in radiation oncology together with the aim of improving quality and safety in this area of treatment. As a superintendent of quality, Ho exercises an open, undogmatic perspective and describes herself as a generalist in a specialist field.

As a systems convenor, I use my role to expose how quality is affected by workplace leadership, team culture and interpersonal relations.

The more you learn, the more you realise what you do not know. It is important to be open about this. As a systems convenor, I use my role to expose how quality is affected by workplace leadership, team culture and interpersonal relations. I show how improvement can be achieved by using a combination of QI methodologies, ‘new’ safety management approach, human factors and ‘traditional or classic or conventional’ quality management system tools ambidextrously. One way I do this is by challenging dogma and jargon in these environments, because how we name things defines how we think and our actions reflect our thinking.’

Recently, Ho made a small but important change to rename the conveners of her regional community practice meeting as facilitators and coordinators rather than chair, deputy chair and secretary.

Ho chose these identities because she wanted to emphasise the supportive and collaborative rather than the hierarchal nature of the roles. This subtle change is just one example of Ho’s ability to notice every-day, informal nuances and her understanding of the implicit power of titles in any system, network or organisation.

Esther Hall

As Public Health System Change Lead with East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Esther Hall’s brief involves working with diverse stakeholders to allow local citizens greater voice and influence over public health. Hall’s work involves bringing diverse people together and actively listening to their conversations. She puts much of her focus on establishing a safe environment for what she calls ‘positive conflict’ within these discussions.

…to tackle the underlying reasons for these problems, we need the courage to be open about our collective difficulties, and move away from blame.

‘I keep an open heart going into this work because I believe that what we are trying to do involves connecting people at a deeper level. There needs to be space within each person where there is room for another way of looking at a specific problem. In a community where those who work for the council are also local residents, who see each other outside of their work context, it can be difficult to be open and candid about really systemic, difficult problems because people fear being blamed. But to tackle the underlying reasons for these problems, we need the courage to be open about our collective difficulties, and move away from blame.

‘We need to be interested in the process of learning. That requires us to have positive conflict, by which I mean expressing different points of view in our place of work in a way that is safe, and that ultimately allows us to hear fresh ideas and collaborate.’

Hall, who is a chartered psychologist, shares insights in the book about how crucial it is for her to establish personal legitimacy within the community as part of her work. She addresses the challenge of dealing with embedded resistance, unconscious bias, and systemic power issues. Drawing on her field research, Hall is also collaborating with Cognitive Edge to use SenseMaker, a data analytics tool, to produce a body of evidence-based research mapping narratives across diverse populations.

Carl Davies

Carl Davies is a systems transformation specialist undertaking a PhD in complex systems and organisational development. As a systems convenor, Carl sees his role as unlocking the potential of staff who already hold innovative and practical insights, but are often not enabled or empowered to implement them.

‘In my role in Berkshire West, I work for a number of different organisations on behalf of the patient. I learned from my experience as a clinician that having an idea or perceived solution to difficult, complex problems is not really the issue. A tendency to reduce complex problems into simple, linear ones in pursuit of ‘quick-wins’ is potentially harmful for organisations.

It requires time and collaboration, and organisations need to facilitate the right climate to empower staff.

The fact that apparently simple solutions are not already in place often points not to a lack of ideas or desire, but instead to the complex nature of change and the system itself. It requires time and collaboration, and organisations need to facilitate the right climate to empower staff. That means supporting new structures and relationships to develop, breaking down old power structures and committing to new ways of governing.

‘My interest lies in working in the tension between the administrative/governance structures of the organisation – where policy is set and risks are managed – and the operational/clinical space where care is delivered. It can be onerous, often invisible and outwardly unrewarding work, however, it’s where I feel we can have the most impact on improving care for patients.’

In his contribution to the book, Carl addresses the need to be aware of the impact of power imbalances in organisations. When working across organisational boundaries, Carl prefers to concentrate on enabling relationships between different parts of the system, and only seeks to be an agent of radical change when it is absolutely necessary. He does this by stepping back from the internal complexity and bringing fresh understanding about how the work of all parties collectively contributes to what he sees as the purpose of the NHS – to drive improvements in outcomes and experience for patients in a way that is sustainable in the long-term. His skill is in using this steady, iterative approach to achieve large scale shifts in policy, behaviour and thinking.

Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century, is now available for download.

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