Understanding the complexity of the system
We talk a lot about ‘the system’ at Fulfilling Lives Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham (FLLSL) but it can be a difficult concept to make sense of. By the system, we mean the services and structures, the attitudes and behaviours, the flow of resources (such as funding), and the values and assumptions in our areas of work. The system spans health and social care, education, criminal justice–and beyond.
At FLLSL, we acknowledge that our current system doesn’t work for everyone–particularly people who experience greater levels of disadvantage. System thinking is an important approach that recognises this, and which enables an understanding of and a response to the root causes of disadvantage. Systems mapping is a helpful tool for supporting system thinking.
I was fortunate to attend a series of system mapping workshops facilitated by NPC between September and December 2020, involving both the FLLSL team and colleagues in other services and agencies across the three boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. They were all hosted on Zoom, and through conversations around different themes and with the help of some useful software, we mapped out the ways in which the system helps and hinders people experiencing multiple disadvantage. The focus was on FLLSL’s system change priorities of access, transitions, and system behaviour.
Bringing together so many different perspectives and experiences led to some really rich discussions, digging deep into the factors at play for people experiencing multiple disadvantage. It is easy to see the ‘symptoms’ of the system but taking the time and making the space to reflect with others really helped us to think about the underlying structures in the system. For example, sometimes practitioners may be perceived as inflexible, but this may be due to the way that the service is commissioned and the outcomes the practitioners are measured against.
Each workshop brought out different themes, reflecting the diversity of experience in each (virtual) room. In one group, we talked a lot about the political landscape around sex work and the impact of current legislation and policy contexts on the day-to-day lives of some of the women we work with; in another group, we discussed challenges around data sharing and how these are a barrier to better collaboration between services, and the impact this has on people using those services. There were some challenging conversations, which emphasised how we all have different perspectives, all of which are valid and important.
NPC captured all that was said at the workshops, to inform a system map. My main reflection from being involved in the process is that it has helped me to get to grips with the complexity of the system and it has highlighted how interconnected different parts of the system are. An example of this is mental health and substance use services; often people are self-medicating trauma or poor mental health with substances, but when addressing the drug and alcohol use, mental health support is often not available. It also helped me to understand the system as more than just a collection of individual services, but as an assembly of relationships and emerging behaviours. Sometimes a negative experience of the system is no one’s ‘fault’ or due to one specific action, but it is the result of the interactions between, and actions of, many different moving parts. When some individuals are unable to get mental health support, it is not due to any one individual decision but down to a multitude of factors, including eligibility thresholds and a lack of suitable options.
The system map NPC has produced highlights these sorts of interactions and relationships more clearly, to help us better understand the system and capture the root causes of disadvantage. This is a helpful tool that can be used to support system thinking. As part of our next steps for this piece of work, we will be building on the systems map to understand the key ‘leverage points’ and opportunities for change.
Sarah Tayleur, Innovation Partner at FLLSL