Systems Change Course

Updated: 4 days ago

In a recent SSIR article, Kania and Kramer make an interesting remark: “The scale and complexity of the U.S. public education system have thwarted attempted reforms for decades… The heroic efforts of countless teachers, administrators, and nonprofits, together with billions of dollars in charitable contributions, may have led to important improvements in individual schools and classrooms, yet system-wide progress has seemed virtually unobtainable.”

This quote goes to the heart of a primary question facing both individuals, organizations and whole societies today: Why, despite the best efforts of countless public, private and civic organizations and the mobilization of vast collective resources, do so many social and environmental problems remain so persistent and intractable? The best intentions and endeavors of countless individuals and organizations do not seem to sum up to the solutions on the macro-level that are now much needed. This begs the question, what are we missing?

Across the public sector, the social sector and other areas people are now starting to become aware that maybe the underlying reductionist assumptions and paradigm through which we traditionally tackle issues may not be appropriate for the scale and complexity of today’s issues. In this respect the new ideas of systems change are now rising to prominence, there is now a sense that its vision, scope, and vocabulary is of a kind that is sufficiently powerful to match the complexity of the challenges at hand. By leveraging a new set of ideas we start to look at what we are doing afresh and with greater clarity that gives renewed inspiration and momentum to our endeavors to shape complex organizations towards more sustainable outcomes.

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 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. So that the system’s structures we inhabit 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 organization emerge.

This course gives an overview of this new way of thinking, its methods and models, guiding you from theory to practice in an attempt to give a 360-degree view of this exciting new area with untold potential.


After giving an overview of what system change is, the first section of this book explores the nature of change within complex organizations. The first thing for us to note is how complex organizational change is fundamentally different from our traditional linear conception of change management. In this section, we look at key models that will help us better understand this change process including the two loops model and adaptive cycle.

The second section looks at systems mapping. Systems mapping is the process of mapping out the key elements in the system and the relations between them that drive the system’s behavior and outcomes over time. We discuss how systems mapping can be used to build up a shared understanding of the structure and dynamics of the system we are dealing with.

The third section deals with futuring and envisioning. Systems change is about transitioning a system from where we are today to somewhere we would prefer to be in the future. To do this we need some insight into how the system is changing, where we might like to get to, as well as some story about how to get there. We need to understand how the system is currently evolving given current trends and processes of change and we need to have a vision of where we would like to be in the future.

The fourth section covers strategy. We discuss how the strategy of the systems changer is about making artful small interventions – based upon our systems map – that work to connect or disconnect links within the system, to dampen down or amplify certain aspects. This strategy should be working synergistically with our storytelling, which worked to shine a light on some aspects while not others.

The final section explores the nature of building collaborative ecosystems for change. As no one organization can change a system the aim of the system changer is to build ecosystems. This means making connections that facilitate the redirection of flows of resources and information into patterns of organization that are capable of responding successfully to the challenges at hand.


Systems Innovation

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