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Systems change: 4 lessons I’ve learnt

By Becky Elton 20 August 2019 5 minute read

There is currently a lot of narrative around systems change and relational ways of working, particularly about how hard it is to work systemically. All of us are part of whatever systems we operate in. So, every time we interact with them, they change.

What we mean when we use the term systems change is ‘influencing change in a system so that it more effectively delivers the purpose of that system’. What is hard is to direct the change, so that the system improves and creates lasting impact.

The challenge we face is that we all want to jump straight into systems change, without the right skills for systemic thinking or the right tools. Then what happens is we fall back into old patterns, like creating a plan which looks good on paper, we try to implement it and it fails, and then it becomes ‘just another initiative’. These initiatives will inevitably change the system but probably not in the radical way we wanted them to. That’s why I’m looking forward to speaking about the barriers that are holding us back from achieving systems change at NPC Ignites.

There can also be something a bit confusing and impenetrable about the language of systems change. I have a sense that many people, deep down, feel inadequate when faced with these big ideas—the words evoke anxiety as people often get the sense that everyone else has a far deeper understanding of them.

I’m not going to pretend that I, or Changing Lives, is anywhere near to perfect in ‘doing’ systems change. However, we have learnt a lot about the thinking, the tools and the conditions for change over recent years. Here are the four lessons we have learnt from ‘doing’ systems change.

Understand the problem from the beginning

You can’t change systems alone. The more people you include and the more diverse those people are, the better chance you have of really understanding the problem. You need to dig under the surface to get past the established narrative of the problem—using creative methods, such as drawing pictures of the system, is a great way of achieving this. In one of our first major systems change endeavours, a common issue kept arising with our Record Management IT system. It turned out that there were some minor issues, but trying to get a quick win by fixing the IT diverted us from gaining a deeper understanding of the wider problem, which was much more complex and involved staff confidence, workload, training, and unclear expectations.

Understand the purpose of the system

What is the purpose of the system and what do you want it to be? Are there different perspectives in the room? Don’t assume that everyone thinks the system is meant to be doing the same thing. For example, I might think the purpose of the system is to prevent homelessness. The local authority may think that the same system is there to fulfil their statutory obligation. The person using the services, within the system, may think that the purpose is to put obstacles in the way of them getting permanent accommodation. If we can share these different ideas of purpose and then agree the purpose we are aiming for collectively, then we are much more able to test new ideas for change.

Don’t delay getting started

Try things out as soon as you can but understand what your purpose and measurements for success is before you start. Don’t be afraid to stop or change your approach if it is not working. Alongside this, create the conditions where your team feel comfortable in trying things out and learning from the results. Some of our biggest changes have happened because a support worker has listened to the people they are working with and decided to respond differently. For example, when a group of women declined the idea of going to an art gallery because ‘these places aren’t for people like us’, our staff set about changing that perception, not just with the women themselves but with the art galleries and other cultural institutions.

Become comfortable with messiness

Finally, all of this is complex and messy. There will never be the right time to start and the system will change even as you try to change it. That’s okay, involve people, listen to diverse perspectives, dig deeper into the problem, be clear on purpose, try things out, reflect, and learn from others.

Becky will be speaking at our annual conference, NPC Ignites. To discuss this topic further, purchase your tickets here.



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