This blog will give updates on the action-research strand of seeking to create a more-complexity informed management practice, which has emerged out of the report: A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity’. Working with Toby Lowe, I have been funded by the Tudor Trust for 3 years to support funders and commissioners to help them work to in a complexity-informed way. This will involve asking questions of what such practice looks like and how organisations come to implement such an approach. The action-research will capture a wide range of evidence which will form a series of case studies, and will feed into building communities of practice. The case studies will provide interesting stimulus for knowledge building and sense-making within and across organisations. You can find updates on building communities of practice on Toby Lowe’s blog. Before introducing the research in more detail, I’ve written a little about my background and how it is related to my role here at Newcastle.
My previous career was in schools; I was a teacher for over 9 years and during that time experienced first-hand various policy changes at both a national and local level. One such policy was performance management, which was subject to change at a national level in 2012, including the link of performance to pay, and devolution of power to individual schools. Whilst one of these changes held potential, in that teachers no longer felt they had to dogmatically follow one system, I considered performance related pay to be inherently unfair. Some schools took a complicated approach to performance management, where teachers were assessed against a myriad of criteria, highlighter pen in hand as these were ticked off one-by-one. In addition quantitative targets were often written down for individual teachers to reach at the end of the year. In my mind this approach seemed reductionist and didn’t take into account the complex reality of life in a school, where for example a target might not be met if a child was ill on the day of a test. I became increasingly frustrated with such policies, but at the time was unable to fully articulate the reasons why.
It was when I started a PhD on performance management that my supervisor gave me the answer to my reticence to the policy; schools are complex systems. Complexity theory helps to answer why policies such as performance management do not seem to fit with the messiness of real life. So, the reason I was frustrated with being set a narrow range of targets, and being held individually to account for the results, was that this is impossible to do in a complex system, due to non-linear cause and effect. High levels of interaction between people working within the system mean that a range of variables, and inputs, can account for outcomes, and that it is impossible to isolate these in order to see who, or what, to hold to account. The reason why I didn’t like the idea of performance related pay was also related to non-linear cause and effect and to me seemed an inflexible approach which pits teacher against teacher, instead of encouraging collaboration.
If we are to embrace the idea that the world is complex, then instead of holding individual people to account for a narrow range of outcomes we should think about how to develop the system in order for it to evolve and flourish. Performance management in schools is in danger of leaving this aspect out of the policy entirely, due to the focus on outcomes.
As I head towards the end of my PhD, I realized that it wasn’t only schools who were finding performance management so difficult, other organisations were as well. So when a research post came up to work with Toby Lowe,who has been using complexity to inform and change practice, I saw an opportunity to use theory to help make a difference. This blog commences at the start of the journey to help support funders and commissioners to work in a complexity-informed way.