Are you trying to collaborate across organisational boundaries but getting stuck due to entrenched behaviours, structures and ways of working? The emerging practice of systems stewardship gives some insights into what it takes to enable meaningful collaboration.

Drawing on insights and examples of practice from across the Human Learning Systems network, we’ve pulled together a resource to introduce what system stewardship is, why it’s important and how to get started. Read this blog for a summary, and click the link below to access the full resource:

Why we need a stewardship approach

The case for collaboration is stronger than ever but realising its potential is daunting when confronted by systems that are often siloed, competitive and fragmented. These barriers will persist unless we purposefully try to create the underlying conditions for people to collaborate and learn together more effectively.

A system steward is person, organisation or group that does just this by taking responsibility for nurturing a ‘healthy’ system. They work to help people achieve together what they can’t alone through making best use of collective relationships, insights and resources.

[We work to] surface awareness of there being a system and the importance of people understanding their own role in relation to others.

– Julian Penton, Hartlepower

Playing this role – focusing on and nurturing what we can achieve collectively – represents a significant shift from traditional organisation-centric practice. Stewards both model more collaborative ways of working to show what different can look like, and help create the conditions (both relational and structural) for others to adopt these new practices.

Features of systems stewardship

While the practice differs depending on the context, there are some common core features that are distinct from traditional ways of working:

Fostering trusting relationships: Creating understanding and empathy as a foundation for collaboration.

Bringing people together around a common purpose: Convening people to build collective understanding of the system, our interdependent roles within it, and how we can make best use of collective insight and resources.

Deep listening: Putting ongoing listening at the heart of how we work, particularly listening deeply to the people we support.

Enabling learning: Creating a learning culture that enables ongoing adaptation and improvement.

Paying attention to power dynamics: Addressing imbalances in power dynamics to increase the voice and agency of those who are least heard.

The point about learning through listening is that the process of doing it is as important as the stories we hear so our practice is learning through listening… The process of groups of people listening and learning together creates empathy and empathy is a really key thing in building trust.

– Gary Wallace, Plymouth City Council

[We] amplify the voices of those who haven’t had a voice or don’t see themselves as able to connect to the system. We have got the ear of the system, and we can help bring some of those voices to it. And also be a translator between the different actors.

Lela Kogbara, Black Thrive

Examples of systems stewardship in practice

Many different types of people and organisation can play a stewardship role. Sometimes funders and commissioners are best placed as they hold the resource and convening power, while in other cases civil society organisations have more legitimacy to play this role.

To find out more about systems stewardship, including how Collaborate can support you, please contact Dawn Plimmer.