Systems Change Analysis

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

As the influential systems thinking, Donella Meadows writes[1] “Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history.” We love the idea of the genius creator, they “change history” they “rewrite the rules.” However, the idea that we create something new is a bit of an illusion, innovation is really about taking the resources we are given from the past and remixing them in some “new way” to create something that will be of relevance to the present.

There is a certain hubris in thinking that creativity or innovation comes from us. It is more productive to think that the capacity for change is not in us somewhere, but instead, in the system, we wish to change. Typically the change is right in front of us, it is already happening, we just can’t see it yet, if you want to change the system you have to look at it and listen to it because that is where the potential for change really is.

Whereas creativity may come from within, innovation is more about the environment or context. For the new solution to be of value and become adopted it has to be relevant to the world we live in. Many people created iPads before Apple had its success, the difference is that Apple just came at a time when the context was in place for that creation to be relevant to peoples’ needs and thus adopted and seen as innovative. We like the idea that innovation is new, in fact, innovation can be simply rediscovering what is already known but making it relevant for the new context, the same is true for systems innovation.

These complex adaptive systems have a massive amount of history, innovation involves sometimes looking back at our old ways that prevailed before the current system became dominant and reinventing those solutions in this new context. Everything you will ever do has probably been done before, however, it has not been done in this new context and that is what will make it innovative and of value. To put it simply innovation is about creating something that is relevant to the current context and doing that requires a deep analysis of the current system you are dealing with; past and present.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Vision and motivation are important but just as important is realism; a deep appreciation for the complexity of the systems we live in. The unfortunate reality we have to face as systems innovators is that we are just tiny blips within vast complex networks that shape the world around us. We need to appreciate that these systems that we are trying to effect change within are almost unimaginably vast complex networks of adaptive nodes making decisions locally according to the information they receive. It quite literally requires a huge stretch of our imagination to even begin to envision the reality of the systems we are operating in – all these overlapping and intersecting networks of connections – and everything we do will exist within that context. This is the reality of living in a 21st-century high-tech globally integrated economy.

These systems that we are trying to change are often so large and complex that really you have almost no opportunity to actually change them. The idea that you can come in and define a desired outcome and impose it on the system is not realistic; we see it fail time and time again. A new government comes into office, there is a housing crisis or a health systems failure so they are expected to draw up a plan for reform to take place while they are in office over the next 4 or 8 years, all changes are pushed throughout the system as promises are made. Unfortunately, this does not work because of the nature of the systems we are dealing with. The reason is these complex adaptive systems are much larger, much more complex than the people who want to change them and they have a life of their own – there are a great many agents in the system that have local interests and will respond to the intervention in different ways, often simply resisting as the attempt for change grinds to a halt.

Dr. Samir Rihani, co-author of Complexity and Public Policy talks about this process in the English Health System as such[2] “When you propose a large-scale change the system is resilient, in the sense that not only does it accept change, which it does and we know it has been accepting many many changes, but on the other hand it also tries to protect itself against, if you like, unusual changes and it looks at these changes [and says] hang on I will need to wait and see whether in fact that’s an appropriate change or not, and that is resilience and that’s why you have these large-scale changes that have little resilience in terms of continuity, they happen and then two or three years later there’s another change that is brought about and two or three years later there’s another change, in fact, it’s been said that all these major NHS organizational changes have a half-life of about two or three years and that’s it they are finished.”

This is exactly what we are trying to avoid because it is extremely costly, it takes precious time, energy and money and worst of all it creates a sense that change is not possible, thus depleting moral. That is why the most important thing to learn is that you can not change a complex adaptive system all you can do is observe it, understand how it works how it is changing over time and work with that evolutionary potential. The social scientist Orit Gal illustrates this in her writing about the similarities between Chinese traditional thinking and contemporary complexity theories[3] “Rather than trying to achieve an ideal end state, the role of strategy was to assess the many forces shaping a certain situation and detect configurations in this environment that could be favourable to the task at hand, or the general direction aimed towards. Within this mindset, the strategy is perceived in terms of seeking potential rather than a course of action, focusing on identifying existing emerging trajectories and how to best position oneself to take advantage of them. In this sense, it is those very ‘circumstances’ – that for the Western strategist come in the way of achieving her goal, that is the actual source of potential for the Chinese strategist.”

Systems Analysis

To be successful in systems change you have to work with the evolutionary potential of the system and your capacity to do that is fully based upon your capacity to understand where the system is coming from, what are the major processes of change currently underway? Where are they leading the system and what is the potential within that to take the system to the next level? All of this we would term systems analysis. Systems analysis is a science and an art, it involves aspects of formal modeling, but just as importantly it involves the skills of a good investigative journalist or an ethnographer. You want to follow things wherever they lead drawing upon any and all relevant information like a good investigative journalist. Likewise, we want to get out of our own perspective of the system and into that of others, like a good ethnographer. Defy traditional disciplines and boundaries and expand thought horizons.

As Donella Meadows writes[4] “Defy the disciplines. In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from–while not being limited by–economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians. You will have to penetrate their jargons, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses. They won’t make it easy for you.”


A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simpler system that worked, as a complex system designed from scratch rarely works. As a consequence all complex adaptive systems are shaped by their evolution and are a product of it, this is captured in the term historises. In a very general sense historises means that history matters; that the opportunities and possibilities going forward are a product of what happened to get to this point. Studying this history of the system helps to shift our understanding of it and the issues into one of dynamic change rather than a static snapshot.  Moving our questioning from “what’s wrong?” to “how did we get here?” and “where is the momentum to move forward?” It also helps to move from a focus on the problem at hand to focus on the system behavior over time as the creator of the problems. As Donnel Meadows writes[4] “starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution.”

1. The Academy for Systems Change. (2018). Dancing With Systems. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jul. 2018].

2. YouTube. (2018). Complexity and health policy – Interview with Dr. Samir Rihani. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jul. 2018].

3. Social Acupuncture. (2018). 1. Social Acupuncture – An Introduction. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jul. 2018].

4. The Academy for Systems Change. (2018). Dancing With Systems. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Jul. 2018].

Systems Innovation

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