Understanding the opportunity for change we face and some practical steps we can take to build a new normal.

At Collaborate we believe that among the many challenges that Covid-19 poses, there is also an opportunity to turbocharge the reform of organisations and services and to build approaches to social change that are fit for 21st century challenges. In our Collaborative Society Manifesto, published in January, we suggested that we collectively face an opportunity for transition, and offered ideas about a collaborative world, one we now see rapidly coming to life. At the moment we are also observing an increasingly open debate about the need for what we termed in the Manifesto a ‘collaborative mindset’ — a way of viewing, interpreting and acting in the world that reflects the interconnectedness of people, and of people and planet — and of the implications such a mindset has for the way we organise for social change, how we run public services, the leadership behaviours we need, and the future of our communities and our economy.

However, as we also acknowledged in the Manifesto, these new understandings and ways of working will not naturally continue after the crisis has passed; they will need deliberate nurturing and building in the months and years to come. Indeed, the work of all of us today and tomorrow is to dig even deeper to find the energy and determination to sustain change beyond the burning platform that the pandemic has provided. We will need to maintain and form new coalitions to tackle both the challenges that existed before the crisis, such as climate change, and the ones that will follow, such as deepened social and economic inequalities.

We think that the first step in this work is structured learning activity, and a few weeks ago we published an open access learning tool that can be used by individuals, organisations and systems to capture learning from Covid-19 responses in real time. We’ve been hugely encouraged by the feedback we’ve had about the use of this tool by organisations of all kinds, and by the appetite for sustained reform as well as recovery. We now want to help move debate and action on to how that opportunity might be understood and brought to life in practice, using learning insights to build a ‘new normal’.

A model of change

To help us understand and conceptualise the challenge and opportunity for change we are all presented with, we have developed a further adaptation of the ‘double loop’ change model, (created originally by the Berkana Institute and expanded on brilliantly by Cassie Robinson here.)

Adapted from The Berkana Institute via Cassie Robinson

There are a few things we think are useful about this visualisation:

– Firstly, it allows us to see that the adaptations within the crisis response exist within the dominant paradigm. ‘Business as usual’ has been temporarily suspended, but it still remains our dominant frame for understanding our roles and ways of working. The crisis response is experienced as a hiatus from, and disruption of this norm, and once the ‘crisis’ has passed, it is possible to return to what we did before.

– We have also included here the examples of new practice that were already being nurtured in most organisations or systems. These are the pilots, prototypes or transformation activities that were set up within or alongside the dominant system, with the aim of learning about how things could work differently. These remain important sources of inspiration and learning, in part because they represent a connection of the ‘old’ with the ‘new’.

– The rapid adaptations in thinking and practice in response to Covid-19 sit alongside these, generating new insights and genuine change which contains clues for the future state we could shift to. In this sense they can be regarded as an organic prototype at scale, in real time and in the ‘real world’ — they are not established alongside the existing system, as the pre-existing pilots and prototypes were, but they have temporarily become the new world.

– This model includes the notion of ‘hospicing’ or ‘composting’. This means allowing old thinking and practices, or perhaps even services or organisations, to have a good ending, but also to play their part in creating the fertile ground for the new to grow.

– This model allows us to visualise the concurrent states of old, emergent and the ‘new’, or future, state. We think this is more representative of the way that change happens — it is never a linear progression from one state to the next, but a messier experience, where multiple states exist and possibly even compete at the same time. However, it is still possible to focus on creating an increasingly clear sense of what the future state needs to look like, and make conscious efforts to nurture it, to harness opportunity and learning, and to compost the old.

Perhaps the moment we are in now could be understood to be a position of balance, or what Donna Hall described here as a liminal state. We could return to ‘normal’, or we can use the learning consciously to adapt and create a new way of being.

Learning activity is the first place to start. But where do we go next?

Below are some of the things we’ve been thinking about, drawing on our experience of supporting place-based change in recent years, and drawing on learning activities we have been involved with.

Having honest and personal conversations as a catalyst for transformation
We must not gloss over the personal impact that being part of the Covid-19 response has had on most people involved. The next few months are a rich opportunity for people at all levels to share honestly their personal experience over the past months and the impact this has had on them professionally and personally. Check in with each other; share your personal learnings, about leadership, about change, about yourself. We need to pause, reflect and regroup. These are not conversations we’re used to having in professional settings, but we’re hearing about some fascinating examples already happening in some unexpected places. In this way we can help usher in new culture and behaviours and stronger relationships.

Developing place leadership
Place leaders will need to have open conversations about how place and community-focused leadership, and new collaboration between the public sector, communities, the voluntary sector and the private sector can help us tackle the challenges that will follow the initial crisis. Leaders and organisations have been thinking through a place lens in the Covid-19 response, putting boundaries and silos to one side and acting fast and with common purpose. Some of the rapid adaptations in response to Covid-19 will be essential; some of them will not. But place-based leadership, public sector integration and collaboration with mobilised communities and companies are almost certainly going to be needed. Finally, leaders will need to make renewed commitments to tackling longer term challenges together with comparable energy to that which has achieved so much in recent weeks.

Building bold strategies for the future of place
Place leaders will quite quickly need to raise their heads and consider what’s coming next, working together to design strategies for the future of place, including social, environmental and economic recovery and reform. Part of this will need to be a consideration of the level of ambition with which they want to respond to these challenges. We have rich learning about ways we might respond to climate change: how much of this can we maintain locally? And economic thinking such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics offers radical opportunities to rebuild local economies around embedded principles of sustainability.

Empowering the frontline and ‘building backwards’
So much learning currently sits at the frontline, where people from multiple organisations and sectors have got on with the job of protecting vulnerable people, doing whatever it takes with permission and support from managers and leaders. We need to understand what’s happened; how risk was reframed, what shared accountability looked like, what role governance played (or didn’t) in rapid decision making, how people operated from a values-base rather than a job description, and what happens when people are trusted to do the right thing. A deeper understanding will allow us to identify how organisations and places can sustain changes, for example through building new approaches to risk, redesigning governance, enabling the self-management of teams and embracing new forms of community-based connection and care.

Communities driving change
The value of mobilised communities in reaching the parts that the state or third sector can’t reach, in providing the ultimate safety net of every day acts of kindness and in knowing the local patch is surely now evident to all. We all currently live in collaborative communities, so let’s not retreat once the immediate crisis passes. For organisations of all kinds, conversations and co-production with communities, learning about the support and infrastructure that makes a difference and investing in participation is a critical part of shaping an ambitious new normal and tackling the challenges on the horizon.

Developing new organisation and system design principles
The things that worked for organisations and partnerships before Covid-19 will probably not be right for tomorrow. We know of many organisations that are already revisiting corporate strategies and plans in the light of what’s been learned through Covid-19, and this is an opportunity to have a deliberate, open and inclusive conversation about the purpose and role of organisations and the principles that will guide practice, decision making and behaviours going forward. This work will help to increase the cohesiveness of the new & emergent ways of working, and amplify actions to stop the system reverting back to old model. This work is likely to needed for places as well as individual organisations and partnerships.

Building the conditions for sustainable change
The emergency presented by Covid-19 is obviously a unique condition for change (and not one even the most optimistic reformer would want repeated). However, there is rich learning about what other conditions have proved to be important in particular places or organisations, and these should be identified and strengthened in the next phase. For example, places with strong relationships across sectors before Covid-19 report to us that they were well-placed to respond together fast. Councils that had good relationships with the voluntary sector have realised how important and helpful these were in mobilising and coordinating the local response. We have heard from places where public services already worked on an integrated basis on a neighbourhood footprint that these existing structures have been incredibly useful, or that they have fast-tracked such plans into place. Furthermore, places with a vibrant voluntary sector and sense of trust with other institutions were able to respond rapidly, and organisations that were more digitally enabled were able to adapt faster.

In addition to these conditions, we would add that we will need to build organisational and system-wide cultures of ongoing innovation and learning, driving continuous improvement and adaptation.

Looking ahead
This is a longer piece than I intended to write, but perhaps that is because both the challenges and the opportunities all of us involved in public services and social change face are significant. Using learning from Covid-19 to create a new normal will not be easy, and we know that many of the usual constraints will remain, not least the financial challenge. But if there is collective recognition that the chance is now, then let’s accept the challenge, focus on what this work really looks like, and gather the immense energy, determination and optimism that have got us this far to build for what comes next.

Written by Anna Randle