Coronavirus Learning Log: Week 1: Innovating through complexity

Due to the Covid19 outbreak, Good practice is now entirely remote. Given our purpose is to share learning in order to discover new ways of working, these logs will chart how we, our colleagues, and bodies across the public sector have chosen to innovate in this situation. As Knowledge exchange officer Sion Owen put it: ‘We now have to innovate out of necessity rather than out of choice’

Challenges raised:

  • Using our connections at the Wales Audit Office, to enable us to directly engage with public bodies and councils.
  • Our event on Adverse Childhood Experiences eventually being cancelled
  • Having to find ways to shift our face to face work – meetings, webinars, events – to an online sphere.
  • Dealing with the confusion and anxiety rising from the situation
  • Having to alter our working patterns

I predict our challenges will become significantly more specific week to week.

Using Our Connections

At the start of the week, Chris Bolton asked ‘Is anyone deploying innovation and learning alongside Covid19 response teams?’ We will go into more detail on this in future learning logs. However, as you’re on this journey with us, we felt it necessary to share the beginnings of what we have developed.

As mentioned, the aim is to digitally collect information about how public sector bodies are working differently

We can process that information, identifying novel practices and long-term (‘when this is over’) opportunities

We can share that data, through data crunching (charts, stats, graphs) and media content (podcasts, blogs)

We continue to Repeat the process

Auditors could easily engage in this, as well as teams such as Data Analytics. Its benefit is that it helps us make sense of responses to a complex situation. In Chris Bolton’s words it’s about ‘helping the citizens of Wales during a crisis’


Cancelling an event

We had an event planned on Adverse Childhood Experiences. We had a sizeable number of delegates for both North Wales and Cardiff. The event was going ahead as planned! As news unfurled, this became hard to justify. Plan B: we would disinvite delegates and seize an opportunity to collect recorded content from the speakers. A day before we were supposed to leave, the government recommended against unnecessary travel. Plan C was to rely on our speakers to create content for us. Event organiser Sion Owen commented:

 ‘I had an idea of how everything was going to work. It felt like a loss of control. I’ve got three or four people who have stayed in contact with me. Though, their priorities are going to be different during a lockdown’

This speaks of a need to create stability in the team, while realising that in a complex situation, learning and adapting to changing circumstances is vitally important.

Moving Online

Questions remain over our ability to host events that emphasise group exercises. Most recently, Bethan Smith was due to host a discussion with South Wales Police featuring ritual dissent – the exercise by which ideas and approaches by individuals, are intentionally subjected to criticism. She expressed concern that not being able to hold in person events makes networking difficult.  Despite this, Sam Williams pointed out that a lot of the chat’s we would generally have in corridors has shifted to the end of meetings – that informality still exists, ‘just in a different way’.


One positive that came early was utilising Zoom and Skype as platforms for hosting online meetings, webinars and conferences.  Features such as recording and screen sharing prove useful in communicating, without sacrificing any learning opportunities. Deb Allen, for instance, took notes at a senior meeting that occurred via Skype. One negative was the occurrence of technical issues. However, it provided an opportunity for everyone to be heard without the interruption that usually occurs at meetings, and attendees spoke concisely as a result.

We managed to host a webinar on complexity via Zoom. The favoured of the online conferencing platforms, one benefit is that the meeting won’t close down if the host leaves. ‘My laptop crashed halfway through’ says Sam, detailing one in series of technical issues he faced this week. Coincidentally, the event focussed on moving away from systems of targets and arbitrary notions of the way we work, realising that:

 ‘best Practice can’t be true. What works is always changing. What works will stop working in a complex environment’.

Testing a new way of engaging as a result of the complexity created as a result of Covid19, was a great way to demonstrate innovative, creative practice, during a learning session about that very topic.

Confusion and Anxiety

During my conversations with team members, a focus on mental health emerged.

Some pointed out that a long day of calls can be draining, especially without the commute and interaction that comes from being remote. I heard comments that expressed anxiousness over contacting others, unsure as to whether they’re doing the ‘right work’. While some team members are used to working from home, it was noted that having other options taken away can feel ‘restricting’


Then there’s the anxiety caused by the effect on society. Boris Johnson has now announced a nationwide lockdown. ‘I don’t want to live in that sort of world, but I’m prepared to’ says Sion Owen, before pointing out that we’re privileged to work for the WAO, and that he’s understandably worried about his family members who are self-employed or have lost work. ‘We don’t like uncertainty’ he goes on, highlighting that we don’t know how long we will be suffering under the effects of the coronavirus, He concedes: ‘relax, no one else knows what’s going on. See what you can do now’

here’s a link to an article that gives some useful advice on looking after your mental health during the coronavirus.

Altering working patterns

One aspect which became apparent in interviewing team members was the need to manage expectations.

‘I’m having to juggle work and personal life’ Bethan Smith says of balancing home working and her duties as a mother to a two-year-old. ‘It’s different from anything any of us have ever experienced, so I’m learning to not put too much pressure on myself’ she continues. There’s an interesting challenge here in that this is simultaneously one of our most and least hectic times. As you will see, we are at the centre of a project to gather and disseminate knowledge learned from the changes to society resulting from Covid19. However, it is acknowledged that working in this way could understandably result in lower individual productivity.

This means that there has to be an acknowledgement that we are in a difficult situation and that our collective efforts as a team are needed to retain our role as knowledge sharers, responding to a complex situation.

Learning Opportunities

  • Create mutual trust: Remember, we’re not trying to criticise but to ask people ‘what can you teach us?’, learning from their innovative practices. This may take time, but we can start by reaching out to our colleagues and partners, who we already know and trust, and creating connections from there.
  • Accept the fact that we won’t always be in control: In the current context for example, everybody’s way of working depends on how the situation unfolds and so activities such as organising an event can be thrown into chaos. The focus should be on learning, from the way others adapt and the way we adapt as individuals. Not everything we try will be a success!
  • Do not try and look for the absolute best way of doing things: realise that circumstances can stop them from working or at least being practical. Instead try and respond to changes in your environment. Analyse the wider social context and consequences of your actions and ask yourself, ‘is this the most useful or productive thing I could be doing?’
  • Look after yourself: Do not become dragged down by feeling as if you are not doing enough work, but do not try and overwork yourself either. Make sure to take breaks, take time to indulge in hobbies or exercise. Importantly, be reassured that the situation we’re in at the moment will not last forever! I find looking at any problems through a temporal lens a useful coping mechanism
  • Create shared goals: By this I mean, find things that your team and group can aspire towards, that still allow individual members to work at their own pace, and in their own way. Ours is to share good practice but we all have unique ideas on how to achieve that. In the complexity webinar we held, this was referred to as ‘Inter-ternal’ – a coming together of individual liberty and external factors which influence you.

Until next time, remember to stay inside, look after your mental and physical health and wash your hands!

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