A Whole New World is beginning to take shape

Building a Complexity-Friendly Community of Practice

In November last year we hosted an event for funders, commissioners and delivery organisations who are exploring new ways of working in response to ever increasing complexity. These people and organisations are rejecting old norms of siloed, target-driven delivery and have identified that they want to fund, commission and deliver social interventions within the new way of thinking and working described in the report: “A Whole New World – Funding and Commissioning in Complexity”

We came together to explore how a Community of Practice might help to support people trialling such approaches, and bring into being a step change in how we resource and deliver social change in ways which respond effectively to complexity:

  • Recognising and using intrinsic motivation
  • Focussing on learning as the driver of performance improvement
  • Looking after the health of the system as a whole, and nurturing relationships of trust

The event gave people the experience of talking with others who wanted to work in a complexity-informed way in their own practice. We gained a better understanding of who wants to talk with who, about what, and what are mechanisms and platforms are needed to facilitate those conversations.

At the event, participants worked to identify what they considered the key issues relating to building a better way of working. Eight key shifts emerged;

Themes discussed

Use of Data & Evidence

That the traditional ‘scientific paradigm’ with a hierarchy of evidence –  with RCTs at the top and people’s experiences at the bottom – is not helpful for understanding how to work in complex environments. People (especially those on the frontline) need to develop and use a range of evidence, and have the capacity to interpret this evidence locally. Evidence moves from being something which the frontline implements, to something it has ownership of. Evidence is no longer captured solely by numbers, but by stories, vignettes and exemplars which are contextualised by local context.

Collaboration and Competition

We need to change the mindset of all actors in the system from competition to collaboration. His will involve changing cultures and behaviours, and making our networks more transparent and accessible. Collaboration needs to extend across traditional boundaries, including between levels of government, across sectors, and between service users and providers. We need to share successful collaboration case studies as a tool for learning.

Leadership and culture change

‘Command and control’ styles of leadership don’t work for complex environments. We need to bring government, auditors and practitioners together in mixed groups, and challenge existing leaders to both ‘measure what matters’ and move beyond what is measurable to talk about what good looks like. We need to provide moral support for leaders who work outside of command and control leadership styles.


We need the time to make co-production real, and to introduce it earlier in thinking/planning processes – going back to the principles of co-design. Co-design and co-production need to be part of the whole planning cycle – including scrutiny and audit.

Creating system change

We need to create space to fundamentally redesign systems – creating room for experimentation at a place-level,  using co-production. We need peer support for those undertaking system change, and spaces for learning. Communities of practice – both online and in person – can facilitate systems change, through providing a place for reflection and learning.

Places as systems

There are a range of ways to conceptualise ‘place’ and differentiate ‘places’. Traditional distinctions including urban and rural, or neighbourhoods and localities, make it easy to pre-package interventions and standardise service responses. However they don’t build around what citizens and communities understand as places. To make progress, there needs to be a clear focus on place and the issues involved, but we also need to engage in transparent conversations with citizens to make this relevant.


How do we create adult-adult relationships across sectors, moving away from the parent-child relationship which is too often the basis of funding/commissioning relationships? We can start to do this by having trust-building conversations about the work away from conversations about money. Sharing case studies of trust building is very helpful.

Creating learning systems

Those whose actions support dysfunctional systems need to reappraise their approach. But more than this, leaders need to engage in learning systems themselves. A community of practice should engage in learning about learning, by capturing and sharing what has or hasn’t work in its approach. While linking to others engaging in similar work, they should aim to operate at a local level.

Taking this forward

Participants identified three types of need

Help us to understand more about this way of working

There is widespread recognition of the problems which Communities of Practices address, and curiosity about how to work differently. There is now a need to clarify the basic principles of a Community of Practices, provide practical guidance for how they can function in real-world settings, and to demonstrate their value through case studies.

Help us to work in a complexity-friendly way

Participants want to work in a complexity-friendly way, but need support both in the practical infrastructure, and in creating the right cultures and practices in their organisations/networks. They need practical help to design ways of working in their particular contexts, and access to platforms (both online and offline) to engage in Community of Practices.

Help us reflect on how we’re working

People and organisations are already working in a complexity-friendly way, or are aspiring to do so. However, they are often operating in isolation, and without learning from one another’s practices. They need help reflecting on their practice, developing models of good practice, and to have access to connect to others, so they can share experiences and solve problems together.

What forms should a Community of Practice take?

It was considered important to make communities of practice problem-based, and focussed on exploiting available opportunities.  Other groups stressed that communities of practice should not be tightly defined, and must allow participants the opportunity to shape their structure. Some wanted Community of Practices to encompass commissioners, charitable funders and delivery organisations. Others felt it was important to retain a locality character, with regional networks then linking to national bodies. Participants therefore were clear that Communities of Practices were a good way forward, but less certain over exactly how they could be constructed.

A virtual Community of Practices was suggested as a useful route for sharing practice, although there was concern that these could be underused. While the consensus was that Community of Practices should have a physical presence, virtual services could play an important supporting role. Participants wanted the ability to access contact information of others to initiate informal conversations, to begin to build connections independently, and to help share stories and interact on an ad-hoc basis outwith Community of Practice meetings.

Next Steps

Collaborate and Newcastle University are currently in discussions with funders to create the physical and digital infrastructure which will support this Community of Practice.

We hope to have more news by Spring of 2018.

If you would like to join

If you would like to join the Community of Practice, and you haven’t already been to one of the events, sign up to our mailing list using the form below: http://eepurl.com/dgg3Lr

For more information, contact annabel@collaboratecic.com or toby.lowe@newcastle.ac.uk



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