Why systems change is like the difference between clouds and clocks


Bioregional’s Julia Hawkins reports back from her day at last week’s Skoll World Forum, where systems change was the buzzword on everyone’s lips.

Where are you on the ‘enthusiasm for systems change’ continuum – are you a systems evangelist, systems curious, a systems sceptic – or even downright systems hostile? After a superb lunchtime discussion at last week’s Skoll forum facilitated by systems practitioners and Skoll contributors Karen Grattan, Robert Ricigliano and others, I certainly got a lot more curious.

What exactly is systems change? Stanford’s Susan Misra and Jamaica Maxwell say: “The first step to solving an intractable social problem is to understand the system in which it sits. If you don’t, you might find yourself investing in a solution that is ineffective, takes more time or resources to implement, or even makes a problem worse.”

In the medical world, think of doctors dispensing drugs, which often create more ailments – in contrast to a holistic healthcare approach that understands and addresses the interconnected societal, economic and environmental reasons why people get ill in the first place.  

In the environmental sphere, compare carbon offsetting, which allows people to continue flying, guilt-free, with an approach that looks at tackles people’s motivations and beliefs, the often lower cost of air travel compared to other forms of travel, the regulatory environment, the needs of business in a global economy…you get the idea.

Thinking in systems is like the difference between clouds and clocks, said Karen Grattan. Clouds move, expand, contract, disappear and reform, and are pretty hard to influence. Clocks are solid, mechanical and static. If they’re broken, we take them to a shop to mend them.

If we’re not attuned to thinking in systems, we typically don’t see the clouds. We see the clocks, and try and fix them as such. This doesn’t change anything in the long term.

So how do you create a systems mindset? This is what I gathered:

  • Aim for continual improvement, not perfection  – like working towards having a healthier lifestyle this is an evolving process.
  • See patterns, not problems. Using another health analogy, high blood pressure might indicate the existence of a number of underlying issues, but it’s not the whole story.
  • Seek to unlock change, don’t impose it.
  • Be responsive. Systems are not static, but always changing, and we need to adapt accordingly.
  • Solving the world’s biggest problems requires teamwork – within your own organisation and beyond.
  • Leave your ego behind and put the common good above individual interests.

(This list borrows a lot from The Omidyar Group’s clever ‘Systems Practice Mindsets’ video).

All well and good, but how do you go about doing systems change? Here’s where the discussion got more practical. The Omidyar Group has developed a free workbook that details the process of creating systems change, with a set of free tools thrown in. Its staff also use the online tool Kumu to help teams and organisations create visual maps of systems. They use the maps for learning and change, both in the process of creating the maps and afterwards.

You can read more about Kumu in this blog.

I was particularly struck by how useful systems maps can be in aiding communication and collaboration. The map is a visual picture of complexity. It helps you tell stories about what’s happening within the system, which in turn can help engaging with donors, partners, staff and others. It describes the bigger picture, and how we sit within that picture.

If, like me, you’re new to systems change and piqued to find out more, read Solving the world’s biggest problems: better philanthropy through systems change by Jeffrey Walker, who also spoke at Skoll.

One last thing. Why are we all talking about system change now?

As Walker says: “Systems change is gaining traction because the old ways of doing things seem so spent.” The current political chaos in so many countries, glacial progress on social and environmental issues and the breakdown of trust in the ‘establishment’ is all opening up space to talk about how we can ditch the old way of doing things. It’s giving us the opportunity to radically re-think how we achieve progress – a point also argued by Bioregional’s Pooran Desai in an interview with Costing the Earth, broadcast this week.  

So let’s seize that opportunity.

Read about One Planet Living – our framework to enable us all to enjoy a happy, healthy life within our fair share of the earth’s resources, leaving space for wildlife and wilderness.

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