Discarded Drink Can

The Headmaster’s “No Litter Rule”

It Wasn’t Me, Honest!

Our second system fable is based on learning from system redesign work conducted in Birmingham, UK circa 2013/14. It involved numerous public service organisations, social enterprises and volunteers working in partnership. It would be fair to mention the project attracted local, national and international interest when it featured as a high-potential prototype at a conference at Harvard Medical School. This was due to the fact that when baselined against other integrated care initiatives in similar economies, we found it was the only model on this scale with a service architecture that was wholly focussed on community assets. The other models in the comparison tended to have service architectures built around the organisational footprint of local authorities, large hospital(s) or primary care organisations.

Needless to say, for that reason amongst others, we were delighted to be engaged to design the service model and manage the programme. However, the programme failed to scale past the pilot phase even though there was very little disagreement amongst the partners on the problem we were trying to solve. It being a socially-focused integrated care pilot, the mission was to improve health outcomes of 144,000 comorbid, older adults with an elevated risk of social isolation. So this fable epitomises one of the intractable dynamics that characterised system level “conversations” over the course of the programme. We believe it’s worth unpacking.

System Fable# 2: The Headmaster’s “No Litter” Rule

There is a certain Educational Establishment in the heart of England with a reputation for excellence in all areas of educational endeavour. Its name is for now of no consequence. Core to its ethos is a particularly sacred rule about keeping the school environment clean and tidy at all times. The Headmaster believed it was everyone’s duty to ensure the standard was upheld. She also insisted the rule be applied in a spirit of parity and mutual regard. Thus, all were encouraged to respectfully challenge, regardless of status, anyone they found ignoring it.

One day a student was walking through the schoolyard when he saw a teacher walk right past a discarded drinks can. He called to the teacher and pointed out the litter on the floor behind her. The teacher said she hadn’t noticed it. Further, she pointed out she was late for a class and had things on her mind. The student stood his ground and insisted he had seen her walk right past the can and had a duty to call her out. The teacher smiled as if to acknowledge the student’s good intentions but maintained she had not broken the school’s most sacred rule. Then, to the student’s utter surprise, she asked him to pick up the can and place it in the litter bin so they could both get on their way.

We are here to grow system leaders not followers of rules

The student protested saying it wasn’t he who dropped the litter so why therefore should he pick it up? Upon this, the teacher’s mood suddenly changed, and she regarded the student with an air of sheer disappointment. Minutes later they find themselves together in the headmaster’s office, where they both give an account of the earlier events. After listening patiently the headmaster informs the student that, much as it pained, he will indeed be disciplined for breaking the school’s most important rule.

The following day the Headmaster addresses morning assembly to remind everyone about the rule. It would seem the simplest of system rules is not so simple after all. The rule is not about who dropped the litter. Never has been and never will be. The rule is, he points out, that no member of this Institution should ever say, “It wasn’t me!” when asked to pick up litter. We are here to grow system leaders not followers of rules.

Exploring the Perspectives

  • Clearly, the discarded drinks can is a metaphor describing behaviour that ought to benefit everyone in the system. So why does it matter who picks it up?
  • Why did the student end up being disciplined by the headmaster?
  • What about the person or persons who actually dropped the litter – does it matter who they are?
  • Why does such a rule (or system dynamic) exist in the first place?
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