Understanding systems change
Six myths demystified
15 September 2021 8 minute read
Systems change seems to be a polarising term. Some get excited by it, some get annoyed by it. Some are confused about what it means and how it relates to what they do.
At NPC, we think that the field has much to offer for how we tackle our most entrenched problems, particularly as we rethink and rebuild from Covid-19, and that both the annoyance and the confusion around systems change stems from misconceptions.
So, in this blog I present six of the myths we commonly encounter around the systems change approach and suggests how to ‘demythify’ – or debunk – them.
Myth 1: Systems change is fundamentally different to other kinds of social change
Talking about systems change can generate resistance. The way it’s presented sometimes creates a sense of ‘change hierarchy’—occupying an elevated status compared to your vanilla brand of social change: systems change tackles root causes, doesn’t waste time on symptoms. Terms like ‘sticking plaster’ are often used to refer to vital work supporting those with acute need, which can come across as dismissive and patronising. The suggestion being that, without a systems change approach, social change efforts are doomed to failure.
This may not be intentional, but we must always consider how our language and approach is received. Understandably, those who have worked for decades to achieve social change sometimes don’t react well to these inferences. When talking about systems change in workshops, I have heard (quite reasonable) comments from participants such as ‘yes, we used to call it prevention.’
Systems thinking can help us better understand how to achieve ‘problem prevention’, offering tools and concepts to help us analyse systemic barriers to change. New models and theories are always being generated to help us understand how change happens. This is a good thing, but they must be made accessible and offered with humility. Other social change approaches are often also trying to get to the same place.
The system will present enough barriers—the language and approach to changing it shouldn’t become another barrier. After all, changing systems involves lots of people, so it’s particularly important that the process engages rather than alienates. A change approach that creates barriers, even inadvertently, is a fundamentally non-systemic approach.
Myth 2: Systems change is only about changing the big systems
Systems come in all sizes, yet when I ask people about examples of systems in workshops, they generally go big—the financial system, the health system, the criminal justice system. These are certainly systems, highly complex ones, but so is your community or the partnership you are perhaps working with. Systems have multiple subsystems. The criminal justice system, for example, includes the prison system, as well as an individual prison.
When people assume that systems change just means changing the big systems, they are dissuaded from engaging in systemic thinking and action. Each intervention determines its own boundaries and scope: is it the whole prison system, one prison, the prison officer system, the probation system, or the system of popular beliefs and political agendas that maintain it? You decide the scale of system to work with: the important thing is that it’s appropriate for your sphere of influence.
The principles of systems change apply to all systems—whatever the scale. Whether big or small, understanding how your system behaves (and why) can help you change it. Taking a systemic approach means making your thinking, analysis and action within your change process as systemic as possible—considering the dynamics of the wider system and how they impact on your intervention.
Myth 3: Systems change has an agenda
Taking a systems change approach is often taken to assume a particular position. For example, changing the financial system means redesigning capitalism, or changing the justice system assumes less imprisonment. Those may well be states into which we want the system to change, but systems change is an approach, and as such has no agenda. Privatisation of the NHS would be changing the system, albeit not in a way that many systems change proponents may like.
This report into arts charities demonstrates this misconception. It states that the charity sector doesn’t believe in systems change because of continued pay inequality within the charities they researched, and because of their over-representation in metropolitan areas. But systems change itself is agenda neutral. It may be that those charities’ programmes are achieving systemic change in their particular fields—their location and pay scales might not have any relevance to that system. If the report argued that the charities they researched are not supporting systemic change in pay equality, that would be a different matter.
A systems change process seeks to harvest and engage with the diverse perspectives of others in the system, without assuming one’s own view of how the system is, and how it should be, is the only view or the correct one.
Myth 4: Systems change is a fixed destination
At NPC, we often receive enquiries about how an organisation can achieve systems change. Systems change is often talked about as a place one arrives at. Yet we know that systems are dynamic—their parts are continually interacting, changing the whole system in the process. If systems can change by themselves, the ‘end point’ will likely have changed by the time we get there.
We must of course be clear on how we want the system to change, whilst also understanding that the system will be changing anyway, and so our interventions will need to continually adapt to those changes.
For this reason, I prefer to talk about systemic change: the system being an adjective not a noun; a process rather than a destination.
One of the core tenets of systems thinking is non-linearity—that systems behave in unpredictable ways. In this context, working systemically is more about continually sensing, responding and adapting to the whole than about progressing logically towards an end state.
Myth 5: Systems change requires talking about systems
I talk about systems a lot—it’s my job. Frameworks and models can be useful in guiding our thinking and action, and systems thinking can help improve our understanding of our highly complex and interconnected problems. However, people have also achieved systems change without ever mentioning those words.
Mandela was probably the greatest systems leader and systems changer of the 20th century, but he may have never used those terms. He instinctively understood how to work within and across multiple systems; to accommodate multiple agendas, to take people with him, and to build movements. His work wasn’t just about changing the visible structures of racial segregation but also the mental models that created them, and so he engaged with, understood, and ultimately changed, those whose perspectives were different to his own but who were critical in changing that system.
A more recent example struck me when listening to the acclaimed podcast Nice White Parents, which tells the story of how, after fifty years of failed attempts, New York’s segregated school system was finally, and structurally, changed. Although those involved may not have explicitly use the language or frameworks, it is a fascinating case study in systems change. It was led by an enquiry, a deep questioning that allowed campaigners and activists to analyse the system beyond their own assumptions, understanding the attitudes that had kept the system segregated for decades, identifying and convening key actors across the system, developing shared understanding, forming alliances, coordinating actions, distributing power and leadership, and continually adapting their strategy.
For those of us less naturally insightful and capable than Mandela and the New York school system reformers, systems tools and approaches can help, but we should remember that they are just tools—not a secret formula only accessible to those who can speak the special language.
Myth 6: Systems need changing because they don’t work
One often hears people talking about how systems don’t work—or that they’re broken. The financial system, for example, is often referred to as a broken system. So are health systems—both in the UK and the US. However, as this excellent guide to systems change by systems specialists Wasafiri, states, systems are always working for someone, they didn’t develop in the way they did by accident. President Obama’s attempts to reform the US health system, and the deep resistance he encountered, demonstrate that clearly the system was working for someone—and not just big health insurance companies, also certain groups of policyholders.
Understanding who the system is and isn’t working for can be critical in analysing where the power lies in the system, why it was designed in the way it was, and how it needs to be redesigned to work better for those it isn’t serving. It will also help anticipate resistance and consider how it could be managed, by-passed, or overcome.
As a sector and a society, we are increasingly aware of the intractability, interdependence, and complexity of our problems. Systems tools, concepts and frameworks can help us understand how to approach these problems, but the kinds of misconceptions outlined here can obstruct clarity and shared understanding. We hope that demystifying some of these common myths will help make systemic working more accessible and achievable for all.
New seminar series
In a new series of seminars, Seth Reynolds, NPC’s Systems Change Principal, will be profiling some practical tools and frameworks from NPC’s upcoming field guide on how systems practice can help create social change. The next seminar is on 24 January 2023.
Systems Change: Systems practice for social change
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