How do we tackle the big complex problems of our time—problems like climate change, poverty, and health care? Increasingly, change-makers realize that there is no silver bullet. There is no one individual, organization or sector that can tackle the enormous challenges we face. Instead, a growing number of pioneers are taking on the actual systems that cause these problems.
We wanted to find out more about this diffuse group of systems entrepreneurs, so we interviewed a bunch of them, and with the support of Oxford University’s Green Templeton College created systemschangers.com.
We’ve packaged their insight into six strategies, which in combination can help make your own work more systemic.
Know the territory. Be Janus-faced, looking both backwards at the historical roots of the system you’re seeking to change, and forwards to see how it is evolving. Understanding how a system developed can help you transform it. Systems often "come from the brave choices of people who were themselves systems changers and who might be quite horrified that we are now just . . . accepting the consequences of the decision they fought for" says Julian Corner of The Lankelly Chase Foundation. "We don’t have to be passive recipients of history."
Mapping the current system can help you understand how different moving parts operate and where you fit in. Kelly Clark from The Tellus Mater Foundation explains how the map that the foundation created of the financial markets turned something abstract into something visual and tangible that enabled different players to see their place in the system. Maps can give you agency.
But don’t get too caught up in mapping the landscape and looking backwards. Make sure your analysis is always a springboard to action rather than an end in itself. Contrary to the old military adage, time spent in reconnaissance can sometimes be time wasted. You will never have perfect information about the system you are seeking to influence. As Katy Mamen from California-based Ag Innovations asks "When do you stop trying to understand the whole system (which you never can fully understand anyway) and intervene?" Wait too long to act and you’ll analyze yourself into inertia. Be prepared to take a deep breath and dive into the not-quite-known.
Dive in and act. Experiment. Learn. But don’t do it alone.
Work with others to identify a problem, come up with possible solutions, prototype those solutions as quickly as possible and then sit back to reflect and refine the solution before building on them. This is how most systems changers we interviewed work. Does it sound familiar? It resonates with the tech community’s method of agile development, the research community’s method action inquiry, and the scientific community’s method of hypothesis and experiment.
While it might be tempting to come up with all the solutions yourself, the earlier you involve people, the more impact you’ll have. As Catherine Howe from Public-I explains, "If you go into this with too strong an agenda of your own then you are destined to fail, but you’ll never have the effect you want, you’re never really going to leave something behind that is owned by the people you are working with."
Reflection is essential to systems change. If you don’t do it, it is very unlikely you will be successful. It’s that straightforward. But, so many of us find it hard to put time aside to reflect when there is so much to do. We need to reframe reflection so it’s not a luxury but a core component of our work.
Anna Birney from Forum for the Future describes how each month she keeps a different question at the back of her mind. At the end of the month she’ll reflect on her answers. This helps her understand the choices she makes and the assumptions behind them.
On a personal level other options include putting a weekly reflection session in your diary, organizing a monthly learning lunch with colleagues, and making sure your notes are legible and easy to search. Yes, it really is that mundane.
Being disciplined about reflection can directly amplify your impact. Catherine Howe of Public-i explains how you bring more people with you "if you are genuinely learning and sharing as you’re learning rather than having a plan and you’re going to pilot and roll out irrespective of the results."
But it’s not just about individual actions; we have to build learning into organizations. In the words of Julian Corner, we need to "ensure learning is properly resourced. Most organizations that are trying to do something quite interesting on the margins of society have very little capacity to learn. They are just trying to survive . . . if we want them to learn and to capture that learning then we have to fund that."
If you want to create impact, you will have to collaborate. Full stop. No one can change a system alone. Building strong, human connections is an essential part of change. Accept that you will spend a lot more time relationship building than you ever anticipated.
But be prepared to be frustrated. As Charlotte Millar of the Finance Innovation lab states, "Collaboration is countercultural"—business models, competition, organizational culture, and institutional structures can all get in the way.
So get serious about honing the craft of collaboration. Julian Corner describes some of his ingredients for success: maintain momentum and communication; ensure the relationship is cared for; get participants to continually refer back to why they are in this (both personally and organizationally); and make sure everyone is clear what they are bringing to the table.
Tom Farrand of Swarm talks about the importance of developing a difficult common task that individual simply can’t do alone. Charlotte Miller describes the value of developing the self-awareness that will stop you from getting in the way of successful collaboration.
Collaboration is a mix of art and science—be generous, be intentional, be patient.
It can be hard to create radical change from within the status quo and it can be hard to influence a system from outside of it. Lisa Harker of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children sums up the inside/outside dilemma, "There are individuals for whom . . . there is less fear about imagining things to be different and then there are individuals who have the power and resource to bring about change, and somehow those two groups have got to come together. And it’s possible that you need intermediaries."
Savvy change-makers are creating intermediate spaces that enable them to get the best of both worlds—from change labs, like the Finance Innovation Lab, that bring together different players to take on big complex problems, to hacks like those organized by Good for Nothing, where a mixed group comes together to take on a social challenge in 24 to 48 hours.
Do you feel too embedded in the system to change it or too distant from the system to influence it? If you can’t find an existing liminal space, start designing one. As Daniel Dickens of Participle says, "I want to be an insider in the sense that it’s really important to have relationships with people who are in positions to support you and make decisions . . . But if I didn’t feel like an outsider, I’d try and create the situation where I did."
Along the way, be prepared for pivoting emotions, from the rush of positive energy that comes from working with inspiring people, to the overwhelming sense that comes from trying to tackle enormous, complex problems. Enjoy the highs and know that the lows come with the territory.
You’ll be swimming upstream and will face pushback from people who don’t want change. Tom Farrand says: "When you’re trying to explain this stuff to people . . . who aren’t looking at the world in the same way . . . it can feel exhausting, frustrating, like it’s not really making a difference."
Get intentional about how you nurture yourself during the tough times. Be prepared to be in it for the long-haul. "Systems innovation is really difficult to engineer for," warns Dan Sutch from Nominet Trust. Systemic change is a marathon not a sprint. Know when to stop.
And finally, get humble. Become comfortable leading from behind. Don't make yourself too central to the result. It’s often when you get out the way that the magic happens. This kind of servant leadership can be hard on the ego. As Indy Johar of Zero Zero says, it is "difficult and fragile," yet it can be incredibly potent. Systemic leadership often looks a lot more like hosting than heroism, and as Tom Farrand says, "You don’t need to be the star of the party to host a good party."