Cause and Effect in Systems

Being a Systems Changer

I am a manager of a small autonomous homelessness charity and I often feel that we are left out when discussions about policy and strategy take place. It is as if being small means that we are also unprofessional and amateur. It seems that there is a view that size matters; the bigger you are, the more your opinion is ‘of value’. You are taken into the fold, invited to events and your words are presumed to always be right.

So when I was invited onto the Lankelly Chase Systems Changers programme, I was surprised as I thought no-one had noticed us. In fact, two emails about the programme arrived and were deleted before I actually read the details. Maybe I am as guilty as everyone else, and assumed that my opinion would count for nothing and why would this programme be any different?

Anyway, I applied and traipsed to london to meet the programme organisers and was immediately struck by their enthusiasm and dogged optimism. Their passion re-ignited my own although I will confess that I thought that they were a little unrealistic in their aims.

Their dreams are about helping those who do the job challenge the current system of top-down decision making in policy, strategy and operational processes. They want those on the shop floor to be instrumental in making both big and small changes so that those we support benefit in the way they need to rather than how the ‘system’ dictates what ‘support’ should look like.

The programme was advertised as being for front line workers and I queried whether I fitted the criteria as I have a manager job title. But I explained to them that as we are so small, if vomit needs to be cleared up, I will do it. If the phones need answering, I will do it. In fact, I will do anything that any of my team have to do. I started my career in homelessness as an outreach worker and I will never forget the stresses and challenges that front line work brings. Yes I now have a posh job title but it is still the people we support that drives me and my frustrations about the system will only lessen if I find a way to make changes.

Being the only manager on the programme does bring some problems and at times I have struggled with overheard comments about managers not understanding how difficult front line work really is. That may be true with some managers — but not this one. And in fact, I think I offer a very unique perspective (this programme is all about perspectives) as I can see both sides of the fence. I understand the difficulties faced by both workers and managers and I know what it is like to desperately want to support someone and also know that there isn’t any money in the budget for that initiative.

Anyway, I am on the programme and it is reminding me why I opted to work with marginalised groups. The course is difficult and challenging and at times I have absolutely no idea what I am doing but slowly the fog is clearing and I can see a way through the trees. I am lucky, I have a team who embrace new ways of working and a board who are open to trying something else, so long as the client benefits. That freedom to try something and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter, is priceless and all of a sudden, I think of the first paragraph I wrote and let go of my belief (or is it a chip on my shoulder?) that being a big organisation is an essential element for change. I now know that size is irrelevant to systems change. What matters is the willing, passion and a belief that we can and do make a difference to those in need. There is so much more that can be done and I am determined that I will be part of the Systems Change movement. I do think that it is a movement and I for one intend to keep it rolling.