The term systems change is quite a new one but it is certainly no accident that it has come to our collective vocabulary at these times. In many ways, we can recognize it as an emerging response to the conditions of our age and the way that our world has evolved over the past few decades. As such it should be of value to us to say a bit about this broader context in our endeavor to better understand systems change.
Many processes of change have transformed our world over the past several decades at a stunning pace. The growth in global population, the expansion of a standardized industrial technology infrastructure around the planet, the great acceleration of economic activity, the expansion of the market system around the world, the advent of information technology and a global telecommunications network that interconnects billions of people.
All these developments have brought us into an age of complexity, where much if not most of how our world works and how we coordinate human affairs - in terms of social institutions, economic production and exchange, technology infrastructure and our socio-ecological systems - is now mediated and interlinked by highly complex systems. These complex systems take the form of networks that span across traditional domains, jurisdictions and the boundaries of our industrial modes of organizing.
Complex Systems We find ourselves in a world of complex systems that our traditional ways of thinking and organizing leave us ill-prepared to manage and direct. Our failure to understand, design or manage these complex networks, leaves us in a world of fractured industrial age systems and structures that create huge negative externalities.
In every aspect of our lives we now find that we form part of systems - be they the supply chains where our clothes come from, food systems, energy systems our political organizations or financial systems - that are fractured, where our actions have small negative externalities that accumulate on the macro-level to render them dysfunctional over time, unsustainable and leading us towards mounting crisis.
MIT professor Otto Scharmer, asks a poignant question along these lines when he says "the fact that we collectively create results that nobody wants, in almost any kind of system today, how can we make sense of that?" Increasingly it is recognized that the failure of such systems is not an accident or the product of any one actor in the system but instead, a product of the very way the systems we inhabit and depend upon are organized with a resultant growing demand to change those systems rather than just changing any of their parts.
A Changing Approach Our initial reaction to the unfolding sustainability crisis was to throw stones at the bad guys, the energy companies, corrupt politicians, the banks - to take piecemeal actions and hope that they would suffice. But in recent years such simplified solutions appear more limited in the face of the complexity of the issues and a lack of desired results.
Today leading environmental organizations, NGOs, foundations, public institutions, research centers and a growing number of individuals are starting to think differently. They are starting to look beyond the immediate pain points, asking if there is a different way to respond to the scale of the challenges that would be of an appropriate kind to match their scope.
These challenges are now increasingly recognized to be complex and interconnected. Russell Ackoff found his own terminology for these kinds of challenges “English does not contain a suitable word for ’system of problems.’ Therefore, I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a mess.”
"Messes" we now term "wicked problems." We now start to see these challenges as systemic, open-ended, co-evolving and with no known solutions requiring new ways of innovating, new ways of leading, organizing and responding. A way that leverages the power of the very complexity that creates these challenges, a way that is not incremental or linear but holistic and networked, an approach that works with complexity rather than pushing against it. This approach is inspired by and based upon a new way of thinking embodied in complexity theory and systems thinking. A powerful new set of ideas, that hinge around holism, systems, emergence, self-organization, nonlinearity, networks, adaptation, resilience etc.
This new thinking shines a light on the limitations of our existing approaches and why we don't seem to get the outcomes we hope for. Today if something breaks in our societal systems, we separate it out in to parts, analyze, find the faulty part and switch it out for a better one. The problem with this is that rarely does it result in the kind of change leaders hope for, instead, they are often confronted by new problems caused by the initial solution - and the initial problem might also be back and bigger this time.
This reductionist approach focuses our attention and response on separate parts, rather than asking how those parts are interrelated into the whole. As such it blinds us to the patterns and networks that we need to influence so as to drive large scale changes. An analytical approach draws upon the past to give us a sense of the future, we start to see the world as predictable and controllable so we start to plan incremental linear progress - when rarely is it the case in complex environments - and we lose the potential for the kinds of radical nonlinear change processes that are really needed. We fail to see the whole context within which events happen, so we think we have to change the events themselves when a much more powerful approach is to change the context. We see static snapshots so we try to shape the outcome to each new event when what is needed is to better understand the dynamic processes that shape those events.
This new approach that builds upon systems thinking is now termed "systems change". Systems change is about changing the underlying structure to a complex system to change its behavior and outcomes. This stands in contrast to more traditional approaches that rarely question system structure but focus on changing components, events, and outcomes.
The hope is that by seeing system structure, by changing those structures and organizing in new ways, we can create patterns and institutions that better organize us in synergistic ways. The aim is to change the system's structures that we inhabit so that they don't incentivize and coordinate us in ways that have negative externalities leading to so many of the wicked problems we face but instead, they have positive externalities that sum up to something greater than the sum of their parts as new types of organizations, functionality and desirable outcomes emerge.
1. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.ottoscharmer.com/sites/default/files/e2e_ulab.pdf
2. Russell L. Ackoff - Wikiquote. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Russell_L._Ackoff
3. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://lankellychase.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Systems-Change-How-to-Do-It.pdf