Matthew Mezey and I were delighted to chat to Madeline Hoskin to hear about the realities of working with the leadership activity of systems convening. Madi had just left her role as Programme Manager at West Yorkshire Association of Acute Trusts and started her new job as Head of Delivery at North Yorkshire County Council. The video is available to watch and I have summarised our chat below.
Systems convening is defined as ‘an enabling leadership activity working on sustainable change, across challenging silos, in complex social landscapes, amid changing circumstances’ in the Systems Convening handbook, which Madi is featured throughout.
We posed four questions to Madi during our chat. Firstly, Matthew asked Madi to describe her experience of systems convening including a ‘sparkling moment’. Madi explained that her experience of system convening started before she knew of the term, that she had spent years of trying to bring people together and feeling like she was pushing something forward with her own energy because she could see a positive outcome at the end. Madi has worked for many years in project management, quality improvement, business process reengineering and other similar roles, and in all of them, Madi said, it was about bringing people together.
A ‘sparking moment’ was when Madi read the original research on systems convening as ‘I felt like I had been seen’, ‘that what I had been doing actually had a name and that other people could see what I was doing and it was valued’ and ’I had found my tribe’.
The benefits of systems convening
Working with complexity is really important as we move to systems and regions because it is the real world we are working in
I asked about the benefits of working in a systems convening way. Madi explained that most people are good at following a process or a methodology with planned stages, eg project management. However, when working with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty, these linear tools are not effective in helping navigate through such situations. There is often a pull back to these tools caused by for example, process, policy and risk which can prevent big leaps forward when working in complexity. Working with complexity is really important as we move to systems and regions because it is the real world we are working in. Madi shared her experience of working in an ICS (integrated care system) with lots of different drivers and cultures and of using her instincts to work in a systems convening way. This work involved helping create a shared purpose with a looser framework around it to keep things moving forward in the same direction. Also, using the system convening principles of focusing on relationships, empowering local ideas, bringing people together and keeping focused on the horizon.
Working with the challenges of systems convening
Matthew asked about the challenges and how to get systems convening valued more within an organisation. Madi explained that one of the big challenges is that systems convening is almost impossible to measure as it’s about the invisible things. The power of systems convening is being in the background so is a ‘double edged sword’ getting it recognised. If you are influencing gently, then shining a light on it can make it become more rigid so some of the flexibility and benefits of working this way can be lost.
Let’s keep to some milestones, work on now, keep moving in the agreed direction and don’t worry so much about the detail until we get there.
A challenge Madi has faced is being asked to put complexity into a Gantt chart. Due to the emergence and uncertainty of working with complexity the contents and planning on a Gantt chart will become no longer relevant. Madi takes the approach of ‘let’s keep to some milestones, work on now, keep moving in the agreed direction and don’t worry so much about the detail until we get there’. It is a ‘hard sell’ but is getting easier now than in the past possibly due to increased receptivity caused by the significant changes faced in the last two years. We may be at a point of bringing these system convening practices into the mainstream but we mustn’t make them too rigid.
I was keen to seek any tips in how to balance working in a project management environment with the reality of working with complexity. Although this may be getting a little easier it is still a tough space to be in as you can be pushed in lots of directions. Madi described that her approach is to scale up her planning, to have a road map rather than project plan, to have a direction all are heading in, to take each section of the road map where there is a little more certainty and state what can be described in that section using the language of project management. Madi suggests that this approach is used for one gateway and then reviewed to see how it has worked, so it is not a sudden shift in how people are working. This approach provides assurances for anyone who may feel a systems convening approach is too risky or too vague.
A top tip from Madi
Our final question was ‘What do you wish you had known as you were starting to work with systems convening?’ Madi shared that it can be personally really tough so advises people find some peers to talk to, perhaps from within colleague groups or networks and communities, eg the Q community.
Many thanks to Madi for sharing such useful practical suggestions, from a voice of experience these are so valuable.
Madi shares further practical lessons in a further blog and two short videos on ‘Using systems convening leadership in a project management environment’ to follow which build on this blog and video.
This blog was originally published on the NHS Horizons website.