Systems or problems can be complicated or they can be complex. Complicated and complex problems are different from each other, and solutions that are designed for complicated systems do not apply in a complex world.
Building a plane is complicated: it requires expertise and skill, careful planning, and there are many parts and processes. But if you follow the linear instructions you will build a plane that flies, and, while difficult, the process is repeatable.
Public services are entirely different. Even if you use the best available expertise and careful planning, doing the same thing twice, even in the same location, won’t necessarily lead to the same outcome. Power is distributed, meaning both that no single organisation or individual has complete control and that many people exert influence over the actions of others. Small decisions made by individuals – including the users of public services – skew the outcomes. Taking a linear approach to problem solving in this environment does not work.
Bringing about sustainable change in a complex system such as adult social care is therefore extremely difficult unless those within it recognise the complexity and look at it in a completely different way. It requires solutions that have been co-produced across organisational boundaries. At IMPOWER, we call this EDGEWORK®. EDGEWORK is our unique way of understanding and navigating complex systems, and helping leaders in local government deliver better outcomes that cost less.
Complexity in Adult Social Care
Logically, the needs of vulnerable people must be addressed by the entire system as they are likely to require the support of more than just a local authority adult social care service to live more independently and fulfil their personal aspirations.
The current model does not reflect this reality. The adult social care system is set up to work in silos of individual services with their own defined budgets and statutory obligations. This complexity will be amplified even further over the coming years, by a growing range of new challenges including the disparity between urban and rural areas, the use of robotics and other technology, and the increasing prevalence of complex health conditions.
In this challenging environment, service leaders are often forced to narrowly frame problems and therefore only deal with the aspects of adult social care that they directly control. This is understandable because it provides confidence and certainty which are welcomed by anyone whose decisions affect real people and come with real risks attached. But the consequences of looking inwards rather than across the whole system are poorer outcomes for the public generally and vulnerable people in particular, along with higher costs for the taxpayer.
Making an impact within a complex system requires moving beyond what can be controlled to what can be influenced, as shown in the following diagram.