Emergent Leadership: Turning Ideas into Outcomes

A Report from the 2015 Human Services Summit

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Realizing the potential of emerging ideas has always been difficult. Even for path-breaking innovations with transformative potential, the road to implementation can be slippery and filled with potholes, twists and turns, and dead-ends. It begs the question: “How can leaders actually implement emerging ideas to realize improved capacity and outcomes?”
This question of how to achieve the potential of new ideas and business models is critically important in human services, given the powerful emergence of innovations such as Pay-for-Success and Social Impact financing, collective impact strategies, executive functioning science, evidence-based service design, two-generation interventions, and many more capacity-building and outcome-driving ideas.

Yet as leaders embrace the potential of emerging human services innovations, they come face-to-face with established institutional structures, legacy processes and systems, silo-based funding patterns, and calcified ways of measuring outcomes that raise formidable barriers to progress. To overcome these daunting barriers, human services leaders will need to excel in areas such as:

  • Setting a strategy that drives innovation forward while safeguarding current capacity.
  • Aligning new measures and outcome goals across programs, organizations, and sectors.
  • Crafting non-traditional alliances that enable sharing of data, resources, and accountability.
  • Pacing the organizational change and adaptation necessary for sustainable progress.

To help human services leaders acquire these skills and strategies, the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, Leadership for a Networked World and Accenture, in collaboration with the American Public Human Services Association, convened senior leaders for The 2015 Human Services Summit: Emergent Leadership – Turning Ideas into Outcomes.

This sixth annual Summit, held from October 23-25, 2015 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provided an unparalleled opportunity to learn from and network with the world’s foremost human services practitioners, Harvard faculty and researchers, and select industry experts. Participants left the Summit prepared to deliver new levels of outcomes and impact for society, communities, families, and individuals.

What is the Human Services Value Curve?

Learn more about the framework being adopted in the Health and Human Services field >

We cannot afford not to be coordinated. We’re all being pushed to focus on outcomes, and outcomes are inherently across systems. We have to collaborate with one another if we’re going to move those outcomes.”
Maria Cancian
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Administration for Children and Families U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Report Insights

  1. Expect Success: Four Oaks’ TotalChild Program

    In 2007, the board of directors at Four Oaks—a non-profit child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral health agency in Iowa—was excited and concerned. Founded in 1973 to serve ten children in Cedar Rapids, a city in eastern Iowa, the agency was enjoying a decade in which its budget nearly doubled, and it was serving almost 14,000 clients in more than a dozen cities across the state. Nevertheless, the board was troubled by something more foundational: it had no way of knowing whether the organization was fulfilling its mission of “assur[ing] that children become successful adults.”

  2. Moving Up the Human Services Value Curve: The Adaptive Challenge

    In this following excerpt from the 2015 Human Services Summit Summit report, we share insights from a discussion led by Dr. Ron Heifetz, Founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, around the different leadership challenges at each level of the Human Services Value Curve. This discussion revealed that these challenges become increasingly “adaptive” and cannot be resolved through authority and change management alone.

  3. On-ramps: Strategies for Ascending the Human Services Value Curve

    In 2014, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS)—an organization housed within the state’s Department of Human Services that investigates child abuse and supports troubled families—was in crisis. It had recently experienced a 36 percent staff turnover rate and needed 60 percent more personnel—a major reason the unit had a backlog of approximately 6,000 investigations. Over 12 years, DFCS had had nine leaders. Most disturbingly, Georgia had recently experienced six high-profile child deaths.

  4. Opening Doors: Missouri's Health Home Initiative

    The average U.S. citizen lives into his/her late 70s; the life expectancy for a person with a mental disorder is 66; and if someone has a mental disorder and is a Medicare or Medicaid beneficiary, that citizen is only expected to live to (roughly) the age of 55, on par with someone in sub-Saharan Africa. To Dr. Joseph Parks, the director of Missouri’s HealthNet Division (the state’s Medicaid organization), this is “an appalling emergency” and is emblematic of a foundational problem: the U.S. health care system “depends almost entirely on the person who’s sick.” People must identify when something is wrong and determine whom to see. For people with serious mental health problems or chronic medical conditions, the results of this setup can be catastrophic.

  5. Serving All Citizens: Driving System Integration in Michigan

    On January 1, 2015, recently reelected Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ascended the steps of the state capitol, took the oath of office, and delivered an inaugural address with a stirring vision. More concretely, he argued that the state needed to reorient its approach to social services. “We’ve tried to solve problems by creating new programs, segmenting programs, and adding layers of government,” he explained. “Each program focuses on a finite segment of someone’s life without looking at the whole person and understanding what’s holding them back from success.”

  6. The Nurture Effect: Redesigning Human Services around Behavioral Science

    What if there were a way to prevent criminal behavior, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty, and violence? What if we had evidence-based interventions to ensure that young people grow into caring and productive adults? What if we had new strategies to cultivate the skills and values people need to deal patiently and effectively with others’ distressing behaviors? During this session, Dr. Biglan draws from a lifetime of new research on behavioral science to put forth a bold new plan to help solve many of the very real social problems facing our country. He will share research demonstrating how nurturing environments can increase people’s wellbeing in virtually every aspect of our society, from early childhood education to corporate practices. He considers lessons human services leaders can apply to efforts to prevent many of the psychological and behavioral problems that plague our society. Participants engaged in a dialogue about how to transform our practice models to move to prevention over time, establish new outcome metrics, and translate lessons of the nurture effect into action.

How far can you push the boundaries of progress? Now is the time to start moving.
David Ager
Fellow, Harvard Business School


As human services professionals look to the future, they face an environment marked by growing need, constrained resources, and exciting emerging innovations. In a rapidly changing landscape, it is tempting—even understandable—to expect human services agencies to focus on sustaining the status quo. In practice, the enormous needs of people around the world mean that human services agencies need to evolve as well. What’s more, the development of new communications platforms, advanced data analysis techniques, and novel interventions mean that human services organizations have the tools to grow stronger.

If the experiences of Four Oaks, Michigan, and Missouri are any indication, launching new organizational models and managing system change is difficult but possible. These cases also point to the importance of experimentation. While there are common steps that organizations can take to ascend the Human Services Value Curve, there is not a single process an agency can follow. Instead, leaders need to find the right mix of structural change, technological innovation, and human-led reform that can help agencies amplify the impact of all programs and services, leverage data to maximize efficiency and impact, and, above all, ensure that programs are focused on peoples’ holistic needs.

By embracing this action-oriented mentality, human services professionals can ensure that their organizations thrive and also contribute to a broader, system-wide effort to effect meaningful change. Because it is not just individual agencies that are attempting to ascend the Human Services Value Curve; it is also an entire human services community striving to reach new frontiers of care, integration, efficiency, and impact. The world is changing. So it is incumbent on you and your peers to change with it. This is a challenge—indeed, it is an opportunity—worth embracing.

The Executive Leadership Group

Leadership for a Networked World, and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard would like to thank the Executive Leadership Group for their vision and ideas that aided the development of this Summit.

Uma Ahluwalia
Montgomery County (MD) Department of Health and Human Services
Roderick Bremby
Connecticut Department of Social Services
Marc Cherna
Allegheny County Department of Human Services
Carolyn Colvin
Commissioner (Acting)
U.S. Social Security Administration
Susan Dreyfus
President & CEO
Alliance for Strong Families and Communities
Kelly Harder
Dakota County Community Services
Raquel Hatter
Managing Director, Human Services Program
The Kresge Foundation
Kim Hood
Executive Director
Utah Department of Administrative Services
Lynn Johnson
Executive Director
Jefferson County Department of Human Services
Nick Macchione
Health and Human Services Agency, San Diego County, California
Tracy Wareing Evans
President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association

In Collaboration with

Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, with more than 323,000 people serving clients in more than 120 countries. Combining unparalleled experience, comprehensive capabilities across all industries and business functions, and extensive research on the world’s most successful organizations, Accenture collaborates with clients to help them become high- performance businesses and governments. The 2015 Human Services Summit is developed in collaboration with Accenture. Find more information on Accenture’s human service thought leadership at www.accenture.com/publicservice.

Hosted by

Leadership for a Networked World’s applied research, student innovation challenge, and on-campus summit programs are an initiative of Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. TECH is a hub for students, faculty, alumni, and government and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate. LNW accelerates these efforts by connecting leaders across sectors and developing cutting-edge thought leadership on innovation and organizational transformation.

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