Entries by Kate Simpson


Could Girls on Bikes replace GDP?

Could Girls on Bikes replace GDP?

Kate Simpson

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The joy of the internet is that amongst all the rubbish and all the scary stuff, there are flashes of brilliance to be found, the sort that makes you see new and joyful possibilities. And the idea of girls riding bikes as an alternative to GDP is one of those flashes.

I tripped over this idea on a wander down the back allies of LinkedIn (generally a rather uncool place of self-promoters) – but here was someone promoting someone else’s idea (always a good sign).

The idea (from economist Katherine Trebeck) goes something like this. If girls ride bikes to school then that means:

  • they are going to school
  • people (parents) perceive roads as safe enough
  • people have enough money to afford bikes
  • people don’t have to drive cars just to get their kids to school
  • better air quality in cities, and better connectivity in rural areas
  • girls feel safe to be out and about on their own
  • there is enough gender equity for girls to be riding bikes
  • if girls ride bikes, then it also means boys will be riding bikes too

Personally, as a girl who grew up in London and for whom riding bikes to school (and everywhere else) was a pathway to staying safe, to getting out in the world and to expanding my horizons, there is something joyful in this as a measure of a whole economy’s wellbeing.

The idea is, of course, just a glimpse of a much bigger set of ideas around what is an economy for? And how do we know if the economy is getting better or worse? What is an economy that is delivering increasing wellbeing for all?

The point of the girls-on-bike metric is not about the bikes or even just the girls, but about what they indicate.

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was created as an indicator (not an end in self) – it contained the assumption that if a country had a growing GDP then people would be experiencing an increasing quality of life. And for a time in post-World War 2 Europe, that was largely true. And it remains true for some places.

But as we outstrip the planetary boundaries, as wealth inequality grows and as mental health challenges rise, GDP seems a less and less relevant indicator and a growing GDP may even indicate a decrease in wellbeing.

But it is not enough to know what is wrong with our old ideas we need some new ideas to replace them. We need glimpses of a possible future. And this is where girls-on-bikes comes in.

It’s not a single ‘answer’, no one is suggesting it holds an entire universal economic story in this indicator – but then neither does GDP. What it really offers is a different mental model for even thinking about what a ‘good’ economy looks like.

Part of the power of existing systems is that we absorb them into the mental models that frame how we understand the world around us. The way things can seem so inevitable, so pervasive as simple to be the only way that things could be.

It becomes hard to imagine other ways of seeing and thinking. GDP growth has become such a dominant mental model for what a ‘good’ economy is, that it smothers all other possibilities.

So some of the elegance of the girls-on-bikes metric is not that it is necessarily right, but that it gives us a picture of alternative possibilities. It doesn’t just say what is wrong with GDP (which is a well-rehearsed argument even by some very conventional economists) but it suggests a glimpse of possible future – and that makes all sorts of other things imaginable.


Katherine Trebeck is part of The Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a collective of economists offering new ideas on how we can understand progress and wellbeing and growth. And they have a lot of other ideas to share – check them out, including a great conversation with Katherine herself.



System Change in Action: The Wigan Deal

System Change in Action: The Wigan Deal

We are often asked for stories and examples of when system change has happened. And examples can be hard to spot. But they are out there. And so we try and share them; those we have been involved in and those that have been the work of others.

We won’t all agree on what is or is not system change. That is because complex problems don’t have a fixed end state where the work is done. And so there is always more work to do.

It is also because complex problems are contested – there will be different views on what needs to change and what ‘better’ means and for whom. And complex problems are produced by systems that are (in some way) working, and so there will almost always be some form of loss for someone somewhere.

What makes something system change anyway?

So I use four rules of thumb to help judge if something feels like ‘system-y’ change:

  1. Is there more equity? (e.g. do the less powerful have more control of decisions and resources?).
  2. Has there been a shift in the mindset or paradigm that shapes this issue?
    (e.g. have different assumptions about who are agents of change, who should control resources or what ‘better’ means driven this change?).
  3. Is there some sort of ‘scale’? (e.g. can we reasonably expect that people or nature not directly involved in this intervention at this time will experience that change? – this ‘scale’ might be over space or time).
  4. Has something structural shifted? This too is part of scale. That something has shifted that will outlast the protagonists involved, that changes the conditions in which this complex issue blossoms (e.g. a change in national or organisational policy, a permanent shift in the locus of control of resources, etc).

Welcome to Wigan

Wigan, a former mill town in the North West of England, is often over shadowed by its bigger more famous neighbours – the city of Manchester to the East and Liverpool to the West. But in this story it gets to take centre stage. For, since 2011, Wigan Council and its partners have been working to change the very relationship between the Council and the people that live and work there. Known as The Wigan Deal, this a story that challenges the dynamic that ‘the state knows best and will fix everything’ and that citizens are passive recipients.

What happened?

In 2011 Wigan Council, like many in the UK, found themselves facing significant financial pressures. The wider political climate of ‘austerity‘ (a package of policies that limited public sector funding) meant no more money from central government. And so the Council decided it needed to find a new way to relate to and work with citizens in order to deliver services. It was time to try something radically different.

The provision of public services is complex. Traditionally in the UK, there is a fairly paternalistic relationship between the state and citizens. In practice, this means the state controls the money and gets to decide what sorts of services are needed and citizens, while they may lobby and campaign for certain things, are not decision-makers or seen as creators of solutions.

A non-paternalistic model would require that the role of communities be taken seriously with a genuine commitment to collaboration and co-creation of solutions.

Wigan Council decided that if they were going to create a better town and do so with shrinking budgets, then they had to change this underlying paternalistic dynamic. They had to truly and deeply work in partnership, sharing power with local communities.

And so, together the council, citizens, community groups and businesses of Wigan created a series of ‘pledges’, covering everything from creating a ‘vibrant town’ to ‘care for adults with disabilities’. These pledges committed everyone to play their part – they required specific commitments from the council but also from businesses and from residents.

For example, under the ‘Vibrant Town Centre’ pledge the council committed to providing free city centre parking and residents committed to using it to visit local shops, businesses and leisure facilities rather than using it to travel out of town. Pledges were formed across a host of different areas and together they formed ‘The Wigan Deal.’

In 2019, ‘The Kings Fund’ – an independent health think tank did an evaluation asking ‘Is the Deal Real?‘ They concluded there had been a ‘genuine transformation’. The scale and consistency with which ideas have been applied significantly trumped other attempts, illustrating ‘the kind of work that is needed to shift to a new model of public service delivery’.

How did system change happen?

As system change practitioners, The Wigan Deal is intriguing. We have evidence of transformational change in a complex system driven through collaboration across institutional boundaries. And whilst the Kings Fund pointed to ‘bold leadership’ and ‘a long-term strategic commitment to working differently with local people and communities’ we want to go a bit further and unpick the approach through a systems lens. Does the approach differ from the linear approaches that we know complex systems resist?

Work to wire the system together

At the outset, there was a recognition that no single institution could tackle this alone. Change was going to require a shift in mindset. It was going to require disparate parties to come together, build relationships, build understanding, share ambitions, share challenges and commit resources for doing work together.

This ‘wiring of the system together’ is fundamentally important in system change – and – goes beyond just bringing people together. It requires the patient work to really get to know and understand different agendas and perspectives. It requires the willingness to share resources and power.

The “Be Wigan Experience” attended by people from different parts of the system was one tool which helped build collaboration and shift mindsets regarding how residents, citizens and others viewed each other. And it took time.

Donna Hall (former CEO of Wigan Borough Council) described how everyone danced around each other for 2 years before getting on with the real work. But through that dancing the ambition for the work was reframed as “it doesn’t belong to any one of us – it belongs between us”.

Get practical

“The Deal” – the pledges between the council, citizens, community groups and businesses to create a better borough – represents a shared, but big and abstract ambition. In system change work we also have to work on concrete goals to create a focus that mobilises resources and pulls you towards the big ambition.

Below the headline Deal are “deals” for adult social care, “your street”, communities, children and young people, health and wellbeing and businesses. There are co-created pledges in specific contexts such as housing in which the provision of council homes for people with disabilities was supported by private landlords willing to let their properties through the council.

This is a tangible, measurable goal that moves towards the bigger, more abstract, ambition.

No single story

Another aspect of the approach that speaks to systems change is the diversity of storytelling. For example, “Rekindling hope: the story of the Wigan Deal” is told by young people, NHS, community groups, council employees, and businesses.

It is not the Council, ‘the state’, telling one story. It is different parts of the system expressing what matters to them.

In systems change, there is no single story and the Kings Fund research highlighted this. Focus groups found that people’s concerns about issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour were overshadowing incredible progress being made in social care and public health.

Build on what's working

Social care is providing help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability. And it is one of the fastest-growing areas of need and cost in the UK.

People’s social care needs vary significantly depending on their circumstances so providing services that meet needs is highly complex and not well suited to a centralised, paternalistic, one-size-fits-all approach to public service delivery.

Because The Wigan Deal was a collaborative effort it had access to an incredible body of collective intelligence, both about people’s needs and also about the varied way these needs could and were being met.

One of the central successes of the Deal was the closure of expensive Council-run day care centres – predicated on a mindset of ‘come to us, use our services’. Instead, investment was channelled into a network of existing community organisations and neighbourhood groups already connected to people with care needs in their community and better able to understand and provide tailored and localised support to those who needed it.

In system change, this is an example of investing in and building collective and adaptive capacity. Day Care Centres focused on ‘the problem’ (e.g. an isolated elderly person) – a very expensive endeavour. Investing in community organisations focused instead on creating the conditions in which the existing organisations who know and represent local people were better able to thrive and adapt to local needs.

Demand was stripped out of the Council’s social care system and there was an improvement in health and wellbeing metrics.

What next?

What makes the Wigan Deal distinctive and an example of system change in action is the focus on building collective and adaptive capacity. The work of ‘wiring the system together’ better has been fundamental in the co-creation of solutions.

It successfully drew on what already existed in the spaces between different stakeholders, addressing unmet needs in a highly resource-constrained context. The Wigan Deal mobilised resources across organisational boundaries, changed the narrative and amplified the visibility of under-utilised strengths, delivering change at scale.

The Wigan Deal is by no means a panacea and it is now four years on from the Kings Fund analysis during which the Pandemic and UK Cost of Living Crisis has hit. Undoubtedly Wigan was better able to adapt to those shocks having adopted aspects of a systems-based approach.

We hope the people of Wigan have managed to hold their nerve and not relapse, under significant pressure, to a fallacy that the Council can solve these challenges on its own.

Image courtesy of Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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AGRF 2023: Time for Food System Leadership

AGRF 2023: Time for Food System Leadership

A leadership gap is limiting the transformation of Africa’s food system

We (Team Wasafiri’s Claudia & Brenda) have just returned from the Africa Food Systems Forum (AGRF) 2023 in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, where we had an incredible week connecting with food system actors on the continent.

It was exciting to see that it is now mainstream to talk about food as a system; that we collectively have moved beyond agriculture production as the only issue that matters.

Taking a system view isn’t just a matter of being more in vogue or with the zeitgeist, but has a real-world practical impact on the way we understand the complexities of food. It is through a systems view that we can understand, for example, the impact of empowering women (who are the majority of the worlds’ farmers) to employ climate are the real word complexities of food systems and just focusing on one dimension – such as increased production, increased incomes, or climate adaptation may make action feel reassuringly achievable but is a mirage in terms of real transformation.

Brenda & Claudia at AGRF 2023
Wasafiri's Brenda Mareri and Claudia Piacenza at AGRF 2023

We were also pleasantly surprised to see that soil health is no longer a topic only for geeky soil scientists in a corner, but the subject of several conversations that focus on the “how” rather than the “why”.

Smallholder farmers were acknowledged, mentioned, and celebrated as the backbone of the industry but not yet seen and served as the main clients of that industry. How do we move from smallholders as ‘beneficiaries’ of well-meaning interventions designed to ameliorate the impacts of an industrial food system that is built to serve large scale producers – and into the place where smallerholders hold more of the power within food systems?

Chefs from all over the world united their creative minds and sapient hands to elevate “poor” ingredients like beans to demonstrate that healthy diets do not have to be affordable only for middle-class, urban consumers.

And yet despite this great breadth of knowledge, creativity, inspiration and expertise, we are still dealing with incredibly stubborn problems as the Africa Agriculture Status Report reminds us. Why is that?

A big part of the answer lies in the need for a different kind of leadership. Systemic leadership was lacking at the AGRF. We saw a large showcase of good intentions but very little sense-making and collaboration at a level that can truly advance systemic change. Food System transformation requires a deep appreciation of the interconnections not just between the people that produce, process, transport, sell and consume food but also the relationship to the natural world that is the genesis of it all. No one leader, institution, company, or government, however well-intentioned and well-resourced is going to be able to transform a food system alone. It just can’t be done. Collective action is the only form of action that is going to work – and this needs network-driven forms of leadership where collaboration is not an optional activity but the default mode.

Finally, we have a serious problem with the representational status of African rulers who are often over 60, while the average African is 20 years old. And we still do not have enough women leaders with access to the power they need and deserve to nurture collective change at scale. We need to talk about it and support a new generation of African leaders for Food Systems.

The African Food Fellowship is investing in African Food System leaders in Kenya and Rwanda. We are starting to see how leaders can transform food systems in their countries towards more equitable, sustainable, and healthy outcome. Reach out if you want to know more!

If you enjoyed this blog then try this one about speeding up Food System Transformation 



Systems leadership: What is it? What is it for?

Systems leadership: What is it? What is it for?

As we look to step up to today’s ecological and social challenges and help our organisations and communities navigate these complex times – we are reaching for leadership approaches that speak to our interconnected and shifting world.

Systems leadership is one such approach. But what does it actually mean? And how do we do it?

Systems leadership has come to refer to two different (though potentially reinforcing) things.

Some advocate for it as a way to do leadership that recognises the nature of organisations but is agnostic to their purpose. Others advocate for systems leadership as a way to achieve positive outcomes from our leadership, driven by a sense of purpose to address social or environmental challenges.

A way to do leadership

The agnostic version of systems leadership is about seeing our organisations as ecosystems – alive with relationships, history, hopes for the future, beliefs, values, culture, personalities, and flows of resources. It is also about recognising that our organisations are subject to events beyond our control.

Systems leadership asks us to see our organisations less like machines and more like gardens, and ourselves as gardeners, not mechanics. In this context, leadership is about building collective efforts, it’s about seeking perspectives and voices from the margins. It is about tending to the enabling conditions and not just today’s presenting problems.

We can do all this stuff and still (mostly) do it in service of the current ‘system’ – that is the outcomes that our organisation, civic society, national politics and so on currently serve.

An outcome of our leadership

The purpose-driven version of systems leadership is about the pursuit of systemic change. Here we refer to the work to change the structures, rules of the game, relationships, beliefs, values, and so on that create the current state.

Let’s take as an example – food systems. At most national scales, and certainly, at a global level, the current dominant food system is wired to produce as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible.

To do this, it is built on a value set that talks of ‘natural resources to be extracted’, it measures land by productive value, prioritises private ownership and seeks efficiency. As such, our food systems have stimulated amazing advances in technology that improve the productive quality of land, increase the size of animals, and speed up the process of harvest.

This is a system that produces large quantities of food (though not equally distributed) and has allowed people in many parts of the world, such as the UK, to move their labour away from farming and towards other jobs.

It is also a system that has degenerated nature and promoted diets that damage our health.

By some estimates, we only pay a third of the true cost of our food – the remaining costs are externalised upon our environment and health care systems.

Food systems leadership is not just about changing how we do leadership inside our ‘food-producing’ organisations but also addresses the nature of the very system that produces food. It is about shifting the mindsets that determine the way we relate to nature, the relationships between producers and consumers of food, the policy and legal frameworks that shape who can own land, the incentives that determine subsidies and ultimately the purpose of food systems.

This sort of systems leadership is going on all over the place and at all scales. It is happening at the level of individual farms that adopt more regenerative practices (such as Ghyll Bank Farm here where I live in Cumbria, Northern England), all the way through to the global level efforts such as the UN Food Systems Summit.

At Wasafiri we have contributed to a number of these systems leadership efforts including the Food Systems Summit, the African Food Fellowship, and the Climate Change COPs which are finally recognising that food systems must account for a third of our net emissions reductions.

A way to lead AND a reason to lead

Leading system change does require we show up as ‘systems leaders’. We must be committed to elevating the voices and power of the marginalised (including the natural world and even future generations), be willing to operate without certainty; knowing that what has gone before won’t hold the answer to what we need to do next; accepting that traditional hierarchical power and control modes of leadership are simply inadequate.

However, just showing up in these ways is not, in itself, a guarantee of system change.

One could use a ‘systems leadership’ approach to run a large agricultural business (or a single farm) – and do so in the pursuit of the same outcomes as it has always produced.

Leadership for system change needs us to both operate differently as leaders and pursue different sorts of outcomes from our leadership – the sorts of outcomes that will create a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world.



Leading Beyond Our Organisational Boundaries

Leading Beyond Our Organisational Boundaries

Responsible leadership requires meaningful engagement with system level change

By Kate Simpson, Wasafiri & Mark Larmour, Forward Institute

When Fellows from the Forward Institute met recently in York, they came together to explore how best to understand and experiment with systemic change in complex organisations.

The Forward Institute teamed up with Wasafiri, and their Systemcraft model, to help their Fellows work out ‘so, what do I do next?’.

Leading change in complex organisations to create responsible, sustainable, or even regenerative outcomes requires leaders who are willing and skilled up to take a systems-based approach to making change happen. And here is why.

Responsible and sustainable leadership in any organisation demands that we consider the impact our organisations have on people, communities, society and the environment. All the impacts. All the people. Not just the impact that we might desire. And not just the people – employees, shareholders, customers – that we set out to serve. It requires us to consider all the impacts and all the people.

Often, this requires responsible and sustainable organisations to absorb the additional burden of the impacts that lie well beyond their perceived organisational boundary. This, for instance, might mean taking responsibility for the impact on the environment through the waste produced, transportation used, or the natural resources required in their processes.

It could mean taking responsibility for the (sometimes hidden) impact on the communities that they serve or are located within. It should also include taking responsibility for the impact of what the organisation does, and how it does it, on the well-being and health of its people.

Taking responsibility as leaders for these wider impacts, across the complex systems in which we operate, requires more than just good intentions.

Often our business models work more efficiently, and more profitably, by externalising certain environmental or social costs.

Sustainable, responsible shifts within organisations are not about doing current things better, but about doing current things differently. And that ‘different’ is systemic change.

This is not a shallow, woolly or abstract call for things to just ‘be different’. It requires specific attention to the incentives that drive current choices within our organisation.

It is the need for better collaboration between organisations, across all sectors, and with wider society – we can only make a responsible and sustainable change when we work collectively.

While there often aren’t quick fixes or easy wins, there are still many things that we can change for the better, and for the long term.

The Forward Institute is focused on encouraging organisations to consider the wider impacts that they are having on society, and encouraging senior leaders to think for the long term. Wasafiri has created the Systemcraft model through reverse engineering their extensive experience of working with organisations and communities on leading complex, systemic change.

Working together as thought partners, we are collectively committed to helping senior leaders and their organisations to make good change happen.

It is only when we look outside our organisational boundaries that we are able to identify the opportunities to make positive change in the complex systems in which we operate which can benefit everyone.



A complex kind of peace

A complex kind of peace

It’s been 25 years since the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed and brought an almost end to the violence in Northern Ireland. What have we learnt from The Peace Process? How ready and willing are we to let go of being right and accept the truth of vastly different perspectives?


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The cost-of-living crisis: building more collective responses

The cost-of-living crisis: building more collective responses

The UK cost-of-living crisis is a complex problem.

  • It has multiple root causes (inflation, the war in Ukraine, fuel prices, long-term economic trends and more).
  • It is dynamic so it is changing and shifting as we work on it.
  • No single institution can solve it alone (however powerful well intentioned or well-resourced they are). It is a problem that will only give in to collective action.
  • And finally, some of the reasons it is so hard to shift is that there are trade-offs. Putting up wages puts pressure on inflation (and raises costs). Higher taxes have both political and economic implications, likewise with greater subsidies for things like energy costs.

For these reasons, there are no simple answers to the cost-of living crisis; no silver bullet solutions to reach for.

So, what do we do next?

In moments like this, when faced with problems with a high degree of complexity and uncertainty about ‘who should do what’, we need to stop calling for other people to ‘do something’ and start building better collective responses.

Complex problems by their nature need collective actions. We need actions that vary by context – that are adapted for different social groups, regions and the different ways that the cost-of-living crisis is driven and experienced.

Wasafiri has been supporting a range of organisations and clients with their work to build more collective responses to the Cost-of-Living Crisis:

  1. The Forward Institute has convened leaders from across some of the UK’s leading public, private and not-for-profit organisations. And together they are sharing ideas, collaborating and getting practical with their response.
  2. Brighton & Hove City Council convened a summit (facilitated by Wasafiri) that brought key partners together to align and coordinate support, share information and identify ideas and actions to strengthen a collective response. The large turnout demonstrated the high levels of motivation to work more collectively across the city.

Across this work we are noticing a few trends:

  • The cost-of-living crisis cannot be solved at the individual level – food banks, personal finance advice, low-interest loans for travel passes, and even home insulation are all things that will help people to live in the current context but won’t change the context. They are useful and important, but they are a response to the presenting problem – not an attempt to shift its causes.
  • Local collective action – the specific drivers and experiences of the cost-of-living crisis vary by geographic region but also industry, demographics, and a whole host of other variables. Consequently, responses need to be equally varied.

    For example, in Cumbria, a rural area in the north of England, there is a lot of available employment but the cost of transport is a significant barrier to people accessing it. The current (government-funded) experiment to cap bus prices at a flat £2 has more than halved the cost of bus transport in the region and opened up employment opportunities. 

    For an even more innovative (and artistic) attempt to take a collective response check out Power, a project to get a street in London to become its own green power station. The Power project is a recognition that the incentives for individuals to invest in things like solar panels just don’t stack up. On top of this there are significant barriers for individuals including finding suppliers, dealing with planning permissions, having the upfront cash to invest. By taking a collective approach the logistics and the financial incentives are shifted and a sense of belonging and community is created.

Let’s look to the long term


The cost-of-living crisis is a symptom of an underlying system driven (in part) by a dependency on carbon-based energy. We know that we need to change this.

As the cost-of-living crisis stimulates us to change the way we do things – like how we build our homes, use transport, the food we eat, the energy we consume, the products we reuse (or never use) – let’s make these changes not just to get us through this storm but to help us adapt and move towards a more sustainable and even regenerative future.

Join our community of system change leaders.

To learn more about Systemcraft, our approach to complex change, and how to use it in your work – sign up for our online course.

Photo by Sarah Agnew on Unsplash



Live event: What is systems leadership? Why do it? And, most importantly, how?

Live event: Systems leadership; what is it? Why do it? And, most importantly, how?

Join us online: 16 February 2023, 2pm GMT 

Sign up here.

Are you working on social or environmental issues? Do you seek change that depends upon the leadership of others? Are traditional leadership approaches unfit for such complex, dynamic problems?

Join us for a live conversation on System Leadership with Lisa Dreier: Pioneering Food systems leader and author of Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development (published by Harvard Kennedy School).

Lisa has over 20 years of experience catalysing leadership action and innovation in pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She has held senior leadership roles at the Environmental Defence Fund, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, The World Economic Forum and most recently at Harvard University.

Through these roles she has been at the frontlines of some of the world’s most complex sustainability issues particularly around food, ending hunger, innovation and public-private partnerships.

As well as being a System leader she is also a renowned thinker, writer and educator on the topic and has recently founded ‘Systems Leadership Lab’ to help leaders drive systemic change on complex challenges.

Join our live session and have a chance to bring your own questions for Lisa.

Event details

Date: Thursday 16 February 2023

Time: 9am EST | 2pm GMT | 4pm EAT

Join the free Systemcraft Hub to sign up for the session.

Image courtesy of Mighty Networks.


Organisational silos are working (and they can work even better)

Organisational silos are working (and they can work even better)

Systems thinking shows us that ‘the system is working’. Silos in organisations are a case in point. The challenge with silos then is not to break them. Rather, we must ask how we better connect them.

Recently, whilst recruiting for a senior leader, I read a CV of a man who declared his leadership superpower was ‘breaking down silos’. But what if the silos are helping? What if we like silos? What if the silos don’t need breaking but nurturing?

In the world of organisations, it can seem that there is no crime more egregious than creating, working in, and let alone liking silos. And yet, in pretty much every organisation too big to fit around a kitchen table, there are sub-teams or silos. You too are probably part of one.

One of the universal truths of systems thinking is ‘if it exists it is working’. We keep on inventing silos in our organisations despite their lack of popularity. The question then is ‘for whom and in what way are silos working’?

Silos let us know who we belong to – who our people are – who does work like us – who understands the challenges we wrestle with – who knows the things that can help us. And silos create tight accountability.

Structurally, they allow organisations to chunk down accountability beyond the overall organisation performance. Silos mean we can see if the engineering department is developing products with suitable quality, we can see if the sales department is getting out into the market and generating interest, and we can measure if the customer service department is responding well to customers.

And in big organisations – be they public or private – silos help us to see and organise the parts or the organisation and not just the ‘whole’.

System thinking teaches us that resistance to change always sits in what is working and not in what isn’t working. And so, it is all this ‘useful stuff’ that makes silos so resilient to the best efforts of the most evangelical of mangers.

We have seen this in our work with the National Health Service in the UK. Again and again, we see how the silo between ‘hospital’ (clinical) care and social care (at-home nursing) can increase costs and impact negatively on patient health.

This is an organisation full of committed patient-centric people but the structures that define how funding flows and work is organised repeatedly lead to people being stuck in hospital for longer than they want and need, costing more money than they should and often getting less healthy.

In some organisations, the negative impact of silos goes beyond unintentional outcomes and silos become the borders around which an organisation wages civil warfare on itself. Silo leaders seek to capture resources, battle for talent, stake out their territory, and advocate for ‘their’ people. All this effort distracts from whatever the organisation exists to do and pulls at the very seams that hold it together.

So, if silos are both a good and useful thing as well as a bad and unhelpful thing, what do we do next? And how can systems thinking help us?

System thinking reminds us that our work is not to work primarily on the elements (bits) that make up a system, rather it is to work on the connections between them. So, in this case, we need to look not at how we break down or replace silos (matrix management anyone?) but at how we connect them better to each other. This is the power of networks.

Imagine you are part of a sports team. Perhaps you love to play football (or hockey, canoe polo, or kabaddi). That team you are part of is a silo – it connects a set of people in a discreet bounded way. But if you are part of, say, a football team, to really do the thing you exist to do, you need to play (work) with other teams. So, you join a league.

Now you need to connect with other teams, you need to share a calendar, you need to share resources, and have agreements about who plays who when and where, you need shared rules and norms and ways of collecting data.

You become part of a great team and a great league not because you win all the time but when the games you play are closely matched, when each team elevates the performance of the other, when the play itself is a joy to watch and be a part of. When this happens the league as a whole produces something that no team can produce on its own – great games of football/hockey/canoe polo/kabbadi.

In the organisational context, we don’t want competitions between our teams (silos) in the same way that sports teams do – but we do want them to connect closely, to bring out the very best in one another, to create between them something that no individual silo can do on its own.

We need our specialist teams to maintain their own sense of belonging, to know what they are accountable for, to invest in their distinct area of focus but to know that their ultimate success depends on their ability to connect with other silos. Creating this connected network is the work of the system leader.

So next time you find yourself bemoaning the silos within your organisation – ask yourself not what you can do to break them but rather what you can do to better connect them.

To learn more about how you can use an applied systems-based approach in your work, join the Systemcraft community and take the Systemcraft Essentials course.