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The Art of Systems Planning: Connecting the Dots and Co-Creating Collaborative Solutions

The majority of my time working with Collective Results is spent working with health and social service agencies on systems planning for child and youth mental health and wellbeing. Working on systems planning in different settings has helped me articulate what is involved, why this work can feel challenging, and how very rewarding it is. The cool thing about systems planning is that I will always be learning – my understanding is very much a work in progress, and I love learning from partners and agencies within the system.

The intention of systems planning work is to:

  • make meaningful connections between organisations, individuals, and systems

  • identify opportunities to improve the system,

  • and to address barriers, gaps and duplication

all in service of delivering positive impacts on child and youth wellbeing.

The current landscape of the child and youth mental health system is complex. The system is comprised of diverse service providers and community-based agencies who provide mental health and addictions services. Adding to the complexity, the system also includes various planning tables, communities of practices, and community-wide networks working to enhance collaboration and collective impact. All facets of the system have interconnected, yet differing mandates to serve child and youth wellbeing. Furthermore, each of these individual agencies or networks have different funding sources, relationships with government, and accountability mechanisms in place. Your head can start to spin very quickly with the complexity of the big picture and how it translates into specific services, provided by specific providers, guided by specific policies and scopes of practice, for specific children and youth with specific needs. This complexity is also experienced by clients when they try to navigate the system and access services to meet their needs.

As I have been engaging in this systems planning work, I have been reminded that this type of work requires some essential elements:

  • Patience: the powerful and complex nature inherent to these systems means that shifting seemingly a small aspect of the system can take immense coordination, human resources, and time to realize meaningful progress. Progress can be slow, but when systems change, the impact can be big.

  • Deep commitment from all partners in the system: leaders of health and social service agencies must be genuinely committed to systems work in order to engage in collaborative and different ways of doing our work. This commitment must be communicated and supported at all levels of individual agencies.

  • Relationships grounded in trust: Trusting relationships must be built, repaired and nurtured first and foremost. Without trust and relationship it becomes even more challenging for leaders within the system to take risks, work collaboratively to try new approaches, and navigate their agencies through change. This is often the missed opportunity that can be neglected or undervalued. Relationship building is hard work. It’s even harder to measure and celebrate in systems that prioritize quantitative tracking of inputs and outputs.

As a systems planner, my job is to create the space and opportunity to bring various levels of the system together to work collaboratively on a collective priority. I frequently need to remind myself that I don’t need to have all the ideas and answers to the problems faced by this complex system. Rather, I need to effectively facilitate safe and meaningful dialogue that harnesses the wisdom that exists within these communities. My job is to be in service to these communities. Moving forward, I will continue to share specific strategies I use to set priorities and establish results-based accountability to make incremental progress towards the realization of child and youth wellbeing within communities.

In closing, I want to leave you with the wisdom of Liz Weaver from the Tamarack Institute. I love how Liz describes the nature and importance of this work. “If we are building trust and co-creating together, we must be present and engage with one another. This is also about embracing, not trying to manage, the complexity of the context in which we are working.’’

What are some strategies you use to embrace the complexity of your work? How do you resist the urge to manage the complexity in attempt to quickly prove your value and impact within the system?

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