So ‘absent competence’ or ‘constrained capability’?

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After all those weeks of writing very academically about my research topic, I’m finding it hard to explain it all ‘in lay terms’ – removing all the public health speak; Systems speak; and, research speak.  I want to write a briefing note to share the findings – not least with the participants – but short of copying and pasting the relevant bits into a new document I am stuck as to how to make it readable, understandable and engaging.  How do I ‘sell’ the ideas that I have developed – I think they are really helpful ideas, but they are only helpful if you realise the problem that they help with exists in the first place!

So I thought I would try and do it bloggy style here to break the academic mode of writing – in the hope that I can subsequently write something that fits in the middle.

The story goes like this….

Why I did it…

It is now generally accepted in public health research that the nature of wellbeing and health is ‘messy’ – it is complex, full of interdependencies, contested and understood differently by different people.  This means that wellbeing and health cannot be ‘addressed’ solely through traditional reductionist, linear cause-effect thinking.  This is where systems thinking helps.  BUT at the moment, we are not using systems thinking.  If we want to take action to change that around, then we have to be able  to understand why that is the case.

In published literature and practice, there is an underpinning logic in the way this is discussed which goes like this:

No systems thinking = systems thinking is an absent competence = train people in systems thinking (and particularly leaders because they particularly need systems thinking).

But that ‘framing’ seemed incongruent with the observations that I have made in my work.  Those observations led me to believe that people do have systems thinking capabilities but these are not always utilised because of the setting in which people do their work.  So I ‘framed’ it as systems thinking as constrained capability.

My research was all about seeing whether more ‘robust’ investigation supported (or refuted) my ‘constrained capability’ idea and to develop it further.

How I did it…

To investigate it I used two sources:

1) published literature – was there already anything written about partnership working that supported the ‘framing’

2) primary data – as systems thinking can be demonstrated in people’s talk or actions, I chose to closely analyse people’s talk.  I recorded the talk of eleven senior people involved in leading partnership working for wellbeing and health.  The research timetable coincided with the initiation of some appreciative inquiry work about partnership working in the city so the particular ‘talk’ sample used was of the participants describing and talking about their best experience of partnership working and the assets that they and others bring to partnership working.  This particular ‘talk’ was chosen partly because of convenience and partly because the nature of the topic made it more likely that people spoke about more creative occasions.

What I found…

There were three key things that the research brought into focus.

The first was something that wasn’t part of my formal research question.  The literature I had read had all said that wellbeing and health needs systems thinking.  The research reminded me of the diversity of different types of situation that people working in this field have to engage with – each needing different Systems ideas and methods contextualised to what they are doing.  I wrote more about this in this blog.  This came over really strongly.

The second was about the systems thinking capabilities.  If I took systems thinking to be holistic (rather than reductionist) and appreciative of multiple partial perspectives (rather than dogmatic), then there was plenty of abstracts in the talk samples that showed this going on.  This led me to conclude that people do have natural systems thinking capabilities.   However, if I took systems thinking to be making a connection with the academic lineage of Systems, then there was much less evidence in the data I was looking at.  In addition, there was less evidence of ‘systemic thinking’ than of ‘systematic thinking’.  I was really struck though with occasions when people seemed to struggle to find the words to convey ideas that were Systems ideas or systemic thinking.  This led me to conclude that one ‘constraint’ to using systems thinking capabilities is systems literacy – knowledge of the language, ideas, concepts and tools of Systems.

The third was about constraints operating in a partnership setting.  There was quite a lot of information in the published literature that helped identify different variables and some additional insights that I drew from the data.  It was striking that practices advocated as ‘good’ for partnership working were almost synonymous with factors that enable systems thinking; and conversely that practices advocated as ‘bad’ for partnership working were almost synonymous with factors that constrain systems thinking.  The constraints played out at different levels:

  • personal – such as disposition, motivation to engage
  • organisational – such as culture, leadership attitude,
  • partnership – accountability structures; ways of planning
  • national – performance regimes, governance


What I proposed…

I felt that there is value in a ‘systems thinking as constrained capability’ framing and I think that is a useful way of understanding what is happening so that action can be taken to improve.  I had in mind the idea that people need to conduct a ‘systemic inquiry’ into systems thinking in their own local partnership – there couldn’t be set recommendations because actions would depend on what is systemically desirable and culturally feasible in the local area.  So I developed a conceptual model that could be used as a device to help in a local structural exploration.  An early iteration of that model as well as some of the more evolutionary thoughts about it is in this blog.

The final version is below (you can click on it to see it enlarged on a new web-page) – but I do think further research is needed to develop it further and test its usefulness.

A conceptual model for use in structured explanations of systems thinking in partnership working for wellbeing and health

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