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Reflections on systems change

By Alice Evans 2 July 2015

LankellyChase is pleased to have supported the work by NPC to develop an accessible guide to systems change. The timing for us is perfect—it comes just as we start Systems Changers; a programme, co-designed and delivered by the Point People, supporting frontline staff to share their insights from working within systems.

One thing I like about the guide is that it shows that many of us are already thinking about systems change, it’s just that we might not label it as that. This paper also makes me reflect of two insights I’ve gained from the people we fund: connecting with purpose and solidarity.

Connecting with purpose

Today, with all the challenges, cuts, focus on the treadmill of bids, contracts, growing, surviving and redundancies, it can be hard to remember the original motivations and passion behind those initial career choices. It can be hard to have that energy, drive, passion and vision.

But in almost all the organisations that we are funding, those that are really trying something different, who are managing to navigate their way through the seemingly insurmountable challenges, are those whose leaders or managers have a strong sense of purpose and have reconnected to their original motivations.

By purpose I mean those who retain a connection with the individuals their organisations are there for, who believe in a better society. Those who both listen to and hear what individuals say. Like Carol at Transforming Choice or Trina at Love Barrow Families or Malik at Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network. This doesn’t mean that they ignore the other pressures, but they put those pressures in the context of their vision.

This may seem like common sense. But many people and organisations struggle to retain that passion, to find the space to really listen and hear what people are telling them about what they need and trying to meet that need.  Not least because they have to focus, understandably, on the pressures coming from above: Care Quality Commission, Ofsted, responding to Councillors, meeting outcomes, avoiding personal and organisational risk and balancing budgets. The first principle of a systems change approach can help here, by ensuring the focus is on needs and assets and including the voice of beneficiaries.


I could say collaboration, which the guide uses, but I feel this is a term that is starting to feel rather hackneyed—and despite its overuse I have rarely seen it happen. Instead I say solidarity.

Visiting grantees, meeting commissioners and talking to councillors I have been really struck by a growing desire for change, for a desire to radically rethink how we collectively do things, for austerity to be used as the opportunity to lever change rather than a desire to cut services, to retreat into siloes, to raise thresholds and so on.

But then almost immediately, that individual or organisation talks about how hard it is, about how powerless they are, about how lonely and isolated they feel and how tired they are. And as they continue to work alone this will probably remain a reality.

Yet when we bring people together, when we support unusual alliances or partnerships, it is amazing how people start to believe change is possible, start to reach out to each other and work together—such as charities focusing on early years finding common cause with agencies working with adults who are homeless. Reaching out and finding these shared values is difficult—it requires trust, time, honesty, an element of altruism–all the things that when your organisation is fighting for survival can seem like ‘nice to haves’.  It is difficult. But as someone once said to me, change is going to happen anyway, so it’s far better to do it together in partnerships and supporting each other than alone. By working collectively we hold far more power than we think, as principle four in the guide outlines—systems change brings into sharp focus the imperative to collaborate.

These are just some of the qualities I have seen in organisations we support which the systems change guide brings to mind. I hope the guide goes some way towards demystifying systems change and showing that we are all players in changing the system.