elastic bands

Preventing the ping-back: Turning system shifts into systems change

By Seth Reynolds 14 December 2020 5 minute read

Covid-19 has catapulted us into an era of widespread system change. Or maybe not.

Many of us during the early phases of the Covid-19 crisis spoke, perhaps prematurely, of this being a time of profound system change. Some voices urged caution, pointing out the stubbornness of our systems and their tendency to revert.

We are now perhaps just a few months away from the realisation of a vaccination rollout that should largely permit a return to business as usual. This is desperately needed for great swathes of our society, and the end to the crippling constraints of Covid-19 will of course be hugely welcomed by all. Despite that, the challenges we face will continue, perhaps deepen. With a £2tn-plus national debt, recession-induced redundancies, historic unemployment, the returning reality of Brexit and, for the charity sector, sharp funding falls, the post-vaccine party will be short-lived.

Whatever struggles and successes our post-covid world brings, what is certain is that we are currently still in the crisis, and this gives us an opportunity—a moment to seize.

Our current state between two states—the pre and post-covid—is known as a liminal space.  In many cultures, liminal space, or liminality, is regarded as sacred: a state of suspension from which renewal can emerge—a space of becoming, of possibility.

So, with the clock ticking on this liminal moment, we at NPC are asking what kind of system we should be rebuilding in the sector, and we are engaging others with the same questions. Because without such shared reflection and action, building back better, levelling up, and so on, will become just slogans.

To do this, we are drawing on some concepts from systems thinking.

The iceberg

Iceberg model systems change

Credit: Donella Meadows, Systems Thinking Resources http://donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-resources/

The iceberg metaphor is a simple way of conceptualising how the things we see above the surface (effects, symptoms) are underpinned by repeated patterns of behaviour. These are themselves underpinned by structures, dynamics and relationships within our systems, which themselves are created by beliefs, assumptions, and frameworks—sometimes referred to as our mental models.

One aim of systems thinking is to ‘lower the waterline’—to make visible more of the invisible parts of the iceberg. Since Covid-19 struck, many structural issues—from funding systems to racial justice—are being understood and discussed in new ways. This is because coronavirus smashed into the iceberg and revealed what was beneath, shining fresh light on deep-lying systemic behaviours and their effects.

Crises offer ripe opportunities for systems change because the patterns and processes by which we organise ourselves suddenly cease, and the parameters—the ‘control mechanisms’ of the system—are blown apart, making possible things that were previously constrained by them.

This can be seen in the example of the shift in funding systems that occurred early in the crisis, as demonstrated by the London Funders Pledge. The crisis revealed how systemic issues in funding practice were constraining charities’ ability to use their resources efficiently in response to this complex situation, thus inhibiting system effectiveness. The fresh light that was shone on this issue precipitated sudden changes that had been long sought by many in the sector. The waterline was lowered for more people. This example also shows that it is perfectly possible to change systems based on how we see things and what we decide.

Systems shifts vs systems change

In fact, as things stand, this sudden move to flexible funding does not represent a change but a shift in the system.

Systems are stubborn, having built up over time as a result of persistent patterns. Although they may shift during crises, they tend to revert, just as we tend to revert. Converting these shifts into sustained change requires concerted and coordinated effort across the system.

One NPC partner, Grapevine in Coventry, has been engaged in a process that seeks to do this around the issue of collaboration. They are convening stakeholders from across sectors to discuss what happened during the initial crisis to allow rapid collaborative action to emerge between charities, the public sector and volunteer bodies, and what now needs to happen to sustain it.

In those early months, many in the sector experienced this sudden cross-sector collaboration, driven by external need rather than internal agendas. As one contributor to the Grapevine process commented: there was a real sense that your system was asked to deliver what’s needed. It doesn’t matter who you work for, it’s about getting it done.’  However, despite still being in the crisis, the ping-back has already begun, as instinctive collaboration has become: ‘so whose budget line is this coming from?’

This question, although perfectly reasonable, is ‘system revert’ in action

Preventing the ping-back

Returning to our iceberg, we need to think about three interconnected levels of intervention in order to convert these shifts into change: 1) Self—our mental models; 2) Our organisations—their patterns and processes; 3) The system.

To put this in the context of the collaboration example, another contributor to the Grapevine process commented that, ‘my favourite sentence of covid was ‘no egos, logos or silos’.’ This speaks to each of these three levels—self (ego), organisation (logo), sector (silo).

Starting with the self, preventing the ping-back means keeping one’s own waterline lowered—being aware of our own attitudes and assumptions (or egos) and how they contribute to maintaining the system behaviours revealed through the crisis.

This is not easy, but necessary if we are to convert shifts to change. We might therefore ask ourselves what we find challenging about sustaining collaboration: perhaps our territorial instinct, our ‘us and them’ mindset, our ‘othering’ of competitor organisations. Perhaps just that it requires concerted, sustained effort.

At an organisational level we might consider what kind of space we create for it? Is it peripheral or central to our objectives? Are we as organisations willing to use this opportunity to shift our impact focus towards the notion of ‘contribution’, which encourages collaboration, rather than ‘attribution’, which claims the credit?

Looking at the system level, the ‘whose budget line is it coming from’ question offers a useful window. It is partly an organisational question, but budget lines also involve other agents in the system. If the question suggests that our potential as collaborative organisations is in part constrained by those agents, in this case funders, then how can we work with that wider system to instead create a more enabling environment for it? Our funding systems largely encourage competition not collaboration—how can we advocate for shifts to become changes at that level? Working at system level means engaging in dialogue to understand each other’s needs, constraints and parameters and co-designing the systems we want.

We are beginning to see this happening across the sector. As Grapevine are working with partners on sustaining collaboration, our colleagues at IVAR are convening a group of funders and VCSEs around ‘sustaining progressive funding practice,’ understanding what has shifted, what can be learned from the experience and how they can together convert those shifts into changes. Bringing these two themes together, a Funders Collaborative Hub has also emerged.

There are others, but we need many more. As a sector, we need to seize this liminal moment to dig deeper into the structural questions that prevent us from achieving our collective impact, asking challenging questions of ourselves, our organisations and our system in the process.

In a few short months, many more systems will begin to ping-back. Of course, many should—for example, our human interaction shouldn’t continue to occur exclusively in the realm of video conferences. But our liminal window is closing and so we need to use this time strategically, to identify those shifts we believe should not revert and to work with that same urgency at these three levels of self, organisation and system to begin to convert them to changes.

To borrow a phrase from my brilliant stepmother, Diana Reynolds, who leads the Welsh Government behaviour change programme, we need to use this time to think about our ‘luggage and baggage’—to consider the ‘luggage we want to take with us from this experience and the baggage we want to leave behind.’

At NPC we have initiated our ‘Rethink Rebuild’ project as a contribution to this system change, including work on these key areas of collaboration, grant-making and strategy. We do not underestimate the challenge of doing this work in the context of a protracted crisis. However, all the system shifts since Covid-19 struck have been achieved not despite the crisis, but because of it. To sustain them, we will require intention, intervention, coordination and determination.

Covid-19 has not changed the system, it has shifted it. This blog by @Sethalex of @NPCthinks is about how we prevent the ping-back and turn system shifts into systems change: Click To Tweet


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