Systemic change? Be entrepreneurial!

I was catching up with some reading over Christmas and read an interesting article on systems change in the RSA Journal [1]. In the article’s lead, the author states that “To tackle the challenges faced by our public services, we need to learn to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.” I found this thought quite intriguing and not only true for tackling challenges of public services, but also challenges in development.

The focus of the article is how public service should be designed in a time of increasing complexity and uncertainty, when public services are facing a large variety of challenges such as technological changes in society, changes in human relations, changes in the way we work, increasing rates of in-work poverty, migration, etc. This against a background of the ‘old’ model of public service delivery that is based on the tools of New Public Management and Taylorism styles of management have largely failed.

The article asks “could a new approach enable public services to adapt to an environment of complexity, uncertainty and nonlinearity?” Responding to that question, the author sketches out the RSA’s approach:

The RSA is experimenting with a framework and it has two core imperatives. First is to recognise the complexity involved in understanding the bigger picture. Second is to seek a flexible, iterative response to this complex and uncertain social context, pinpointing and pursuing opportunities for sustainable policy change that will make a difference to people’s lives. At the RSA, we call this method ‘think like a system and act like an entrepreneur’.


Based on the RSA’s work, the article concludes that:

However, we conceive of, manage and deliver public services, we need to understand and appreciate the wider systemic perspective in order to be responsive to local needs and context. We do not expect – nor advise – anyone to take on grand societal challenges in their entirety. Instead, we would rather see people, teams and organisations develop an ability to identify opportunities for change and a capacity to react nimbly to them, rapidly prototyping and deploying possible responses.

This conclusion links nicely to Mesopartner’s recent work on systemic change, where we emphasise that systemic change is most likely to be achieved when influential actors or networks of actors become aware of how change happens, and their role in realising the evolutionary potential of the economy. These influential actors need to develop the capability to engage in, collectively discover and continuously shape their institutional landscape – a process that is most effective when it is done in a transparent and participatory way.

So in the end, the worlds of delivering public service in the UK and trying to achieve systemic change in developing countries are not too different and we can learn from each other. In a recent conversation with Toby Lowe from Newcastle University Business School, he also shared the view that the two domains could learn a lot from each other but are still very isolated. Toby works on the question of how to make public services fit to respond to complexity and uncertainty (I have blogged on his recent report on funding in complexity here).

In the end, a big part of the work in development is also about making institutions more responsive to the needs of the citizens and enterprises. While markets are predominantly driven by companies and consumers, we side with the economic school of New Institutional Economics, which sees a big role for public and other institutions in determining economic performance.

This whole discussion about being entrepreneurial and changing policy also reminded me of a 2014 report by the Asia Foundation titled “Development Entrepreneurship: How donors and leaders can foster institutional change“. In the report, the authors describe a method they call ‘development entrepreneurship’:

[The method] is distinguished by ve features: an approach to the choice of objectives; the use of entrepreneurial logic with a bias towards iterative ‘learning by doing’; a method for selecting and working with self-motivated partners; a partnership approach for donors; and a set of programme management tools.

It is always interesting to connect different fields and find so many similarities!


[1] Burbidge, Ian (2017). Altered States. RSA Journal 1/2017. Available here.

2 thoughts on “Systemic change? Be entrepreneurial!

  1. Fahad Ifaz

    Hi Marcus, this is an awesome article. The only thing I would add is development also needs to attract more entrepreneurial people. Thanks to some of the work from Mesopartner and others Uncertainty and Complexity have only recently been considered seriously in the development paradigm. But think of co founders of a small startup that goes from pre revenue, seed funding to series A funding. The core idea remains the same, but the business evolves in a way, that the co founders and the investors never might have thought of on day 1. And that is normal. If donors invested in a project saying ” how can we improve the transportation system of New York”, we would have had a slightly better version of the taxi, something disruptive like Uber might never have emerged. The funders of these businesses always agree on one thing that the idea and the business model evolves so they basically invest in the people running the show and not on the idea. Now I understand development is a different beast and its public money. But I feel the opportunity cost is ho high when we decide to go with the argument that “because it is public money, we are accountable” ,which basically means “play safe and stick to the plan”.

    1. Marcus Post author

      Dear Fahad. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. An interesting avenue to look at would be alternative funding in development. There is a community of practice emerging around ideas of improving public service taking a complexity lens. It is only in the beginning, though. One of the outputs of that stream of work is a report on how to do funding in complexity, which might interest you. I have blogged about it before here:


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