Say yes to the mess

In my previous blog (Back to the Future: Reflecting on value creation and a new role for Active Partnerships – Active Cornwall) I started to share how here at AC we are taking a more rounded and holistic look at the work we do by looking back at the previous year’s achievements through the lens of our future systemic role and asking ourselves – what visible and invisible value do we create together with our partners?

This required making the space and time for some quality reflection across the team (and with partners), using examples of current activities to help connect to future ways of working as a way to kick start our journey of change – you are invited to read more about an outstanding 2021/22 year for our partners here.

As you will see this has been a year of significant change in lots of ways not least in our hosting arrangements with Cornwall Council and a move out of Wellbeing & Public Health and into the Neighbourhoods directorate. This has highlighted for me an even greater need to be clear about the mission, role and purpose of the work AC does and perhaps most importantly how we go about it.


I thought that I would  share some reflections since the move and having spent some time immersed in a LGA systems leadership programme recently, some thoughts have started to crystalise that I hope will ring a bell with many of you who work in other parts of the local system supporting physical activity.

It starts with an admission that despite all our efforts over many years the challenge of inactivity is not really shifting and that for a long time we have probably been approaching this in the wrong way, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The biggest mistake has been treating something which is complex as simple because that way it’s easy to organise and explain. We like the idea of the link between simple cause and effect, not least because it sets up a comfortable linear relationship between input (investment) and output (measures). However, some things are just complex and wishing away the complexity is not helpful in getting to long-term sustainable solutions. In an attempt to deliver different results we are starting to recognise that viewing inequalities in physical activity through a (complex) systems approach might just be a better way forward.

Understanding that physical activity behaviours and inequalities emerge from a set of localised conditions that are specific to the individual, the lives they lead and the unique interactions they have with the people, organisations and places around them is changing our approach profoundly. Instead of trying to ‘fix’ the individual by delivering short-term off the shelf interventions to them, focus turns to understanding and positively affecting the systemic causes by working in and with their bespoke eco-system to bring about permanent and sustainable change.

This is much more messy and brings me back to the point, where AC is positioned in an organisational structure is not so important. The challenges that people and communities face and the solutions we all seek don’t respect Cornwall Council directorates but require us to understand and operate across a range of public, private and VCSE local system influencers all interacting in unpredictable ways e.g. transport, open spaces, planning, education, communities, workplaces and of course (public) health.


As we seek to tackle the big issues and deliver on the cross cutting priorities for Cornwall we will all be challenged to think more horizontally and less vertically. Collaborative partnerships with shared values, purpose and learning will be more important than ever and it will cause us to consider the skills we need for new ways of working and how we evaluate what’s important.

So we should all embrace working in the untidy spaces where these traditional organisational boundaries overlap with each other because this is where we will find trust, true collaboration and innovation so…say yes to the mess!

For more information and case studies on working with local systems see Local delivery | Sport England and Final-Navigating-Local-Systems.pdf (

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