In the last post I wrote about systemic change as the conditions or structures that hold a situation in place. I introduced the six conditions for systems change by Kania, Kramer and Senge and showed the little inverted triangle that puts the conditions in neat boxes and a clear hierarchy – the deeper ‘down’ the condition, the more influential over the system. I also introduced again the systems iceberg, which has a similar hierarchy and logic.
These two things – the neat boxes and the implied hierarchy – kept bugging me. I know that in complex systems things are never that neat and never linear causal – there is not one thing in one box that leads to another thing in another box or to an observed behaviour. Reality is messier. I also missed the dynamics in these diagrams – how are these structure created, how do they persist, how do they change? So I want to follow up on this in this post.
Currently there seems to be a lot going on around systems change, particularly driven by a few organisations that have picked up the topic and drive it forward, including large philanthropic funders that so far have mainly focused on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. They seem to have raised that with simply scaling social enterprises or social innovations, systemic change does not happen and that a systemic view on change is needed. So they have started to put together research projects on figuring out what systemic change is. One thing that emerges from these initiatives is hopefully a wider agreement on what is meant by systems change, which all systems change practitioners could profit from. I’m happy to see that the way I have been thinking about systems change seems to be largely aligned with that emerging consensus.
The definition of what systemic change or systems change (I don’t think there is a difference between the two) is converges around changes in structures that shape the current situation. A very simple but useful definition of systems change comes from the Social Innovation Generation (SIG) in Canada: shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place (quoted in Kania, Kramer and Senge 2018. This is in line with what I called transformative change – a transformation of the system’s structure. We do not just have to solve the problem but we want to transform the conditions that are holding the problem in place.