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Making sense of systems change: 3 things I’ve learned

Anyone who’s worked on issues like homelessness will feel instinctively that they are systemic problems as much as individual ones.

Systems change’s origins may lie in hard management science—with applications like optimising manufacturing processes—but it has obvious relevance to social problems. Anyone who’s worked on issues like homelessness, resettlement of offenders or inequality will know that they involve complex networks of cause and effect, and will feel instinctively that they are systemic problems as much as individual ones. If systems change can help us to understand why difficult social problems exist and persist, and what we can do to improve them, that would be of enormous value.

But there’s a catch: where there is great promise there is also great confusion. Systems change can be infuriatingly abstract. It is strong on diagnosis but weaker on solutions. At its worst is riddled with jargon. And the paucity of examples and case studies of practice doesn’t help. At a roundtable I attended on the topic a while back the only examples a group of experts could provide me with were the Roman Empire and the industrial revolution. Put these elements together—promise, growing interest, but a certain elusiveness—and we have a recipe for nothing but the latest fad.

I understand why some may feel sceptical. That’s the way I felt when I first started studying the subject back in 2015 for our report on the topic—but that certainly isn’t where I’ve ended up. I have come to believe that there’s a real power to systems change, and it’s had a profound influence on me and how I think about the role of charities. But there are three things I think it’s very helpful to realise:

  • Its main power is as a perspective, a habit of thought, as much as a method. There are numerous tools and techniques available for taking a systems change approach (for example see GEO’s resource library) and they can be helpful. But the enduring value of systems change comes from the mental discipline of reflecting on your role in the system and how it can be altered and influenced for the better.
  • It is not that distinctive. A typically systemic prescription for action often includes: having a diagnosis of the situation, looking for points of leverage in it, deploying all the assets at your disposal to achieve change, collaborating with others who can help, and learning and adapting as you go. These approaches are not unique to systems change. Other fields like strategic philanthropy, campaigning (when done well), and early action all tend to suggest similar things. In my view, any thoughtful reflection on social change tends to lead to similar conclusions.
  • By the same token, many charities are already doing it, they just don’t use the language. Examples are legion. Those that have struck me recently include NSPCC’s work to improve children’s services in the local public sector, Trust for London’s support for campaigning on in-work poverty and the Living Wage, and Oxfam’s leadership on systemic approaches in development.

Being aware of these things makes the subject less intimidating. And making systems change more approachable is a good thing because it helps to provide not only realism about what creates and sustains social problems, but also a healthy challenge about our own role in them.  For while it is clearly legitimate to meet the social needs that we are presented with, the risk in doing so is that we inadvertently provide cover for the dysfunctions in the system that contribute to them. Has the social sector struck the right balance between meeting need, and preventing it?

When we are blind to systemic causes of problems, all the solutions we try will likely make matters worse.

Esther Derby

So charities don’t need to become experts on systems change to benefit from its ability to help us reflect in this way. Asking some basic but challenging questions about what it would really take to achieve our missions (some suggestions follow) is a great start. If all charities really tested themselves against these questions on a regular basis that alone would have a transformative effect.

  • What would it take to achieve our mission?
  • What is the context in which we operate?
  • What is our distinctive contribution within that context?
  • Who else do we need to work with or influence to achieve our mission?
  • To what extent do our existing activities make sense seen against this picture?
  • What do we need to do to become more effective at achieving our mission?

I am very pleased, then, that we are further exploring this important topic in another piece of work with Lankelly Chase, which we kick off this month. This time we’ll be exploring the link between theory of change and systems thinking. We want to understand if theory of change is helpful or unhelpful in prompting organisations to think and behave systemically. If you have a reflection from your own experience we would love to hear from you.

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