Systems Innovation Process

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Innovation is the process of creating and introducing a new solution to a given challenge. At its heart innovation is a creative process; an inherently disorganized and messy one. Systems thinkers argue that interventions do not always produce orderly, sequential and contained outcomes; instead an ongoing process of action, learning and adaptation is needed to bring about systems change.

Central to this process – and indeed you might say the origins of this process – is discontent with what is. Innovation starts with a discontent for what is if you are happy with the way the world is you will never change much. You may find two people working on a car assembly line, the one who is quite happy with the job, happy with the way cars are made, their salary and their place in the world, this person will just go on working the same as before indefinitely. The other who is discontent will search for ways to not stay doing what they are doing, and channeling that in a constructive way will lead to them finding a different, faster or better way of doing things.

It is our discontent with some aspect of our world that drives us to conceive of a different better world. No matter how big or small that discontent is and how big or small that vision of a better world is, it is what drives innovation and change. Innovation is a creative process, creative processes do not happen by staying in our comfort zone, new things get created out of tensions, frictions, conflict created by contradictions that are waiting to be resolved but others shy away from them. It is often said that the capacity of a first-rate intellect is to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. We have to be able to envision an ideal world but at the same time be open to the reality in front of us that is typically far from that.

Peter Senge articulates this well when he says “the energy of the creative process comes from this gap, how do you generate the gap? Obviously, when you start to articulate a vision you generate that energy, but just as much when you start to see more clearly the current reality, that also generates tension. There are two fundamental ways to generate creative tension, one is by articulating and getting committed to a vision and the other it is about getting clearer about what is, so to put it simply two sources of creative tension are aspiration and the truth.”[1]

Ideal & Real

Somewhat paradoxically, real change is as much about accepting what is, as it is about envisioning a different future. To go through the creative process is to hold those two that create the contradictions, to live with them and use them as the fuel to your creativity and eventually create some resolution to them. It is that resolution to the constraint or contradiction that will then work as a generic solution that others can use without having to go through that full process. We have to have a vision of a perfect world and a sense of the real world. We have to hold the ideal and the real without slipping too far into either. Energy is not a thing it is the potential difference between two things, without two different things there is no potential energy, no capacity to do work and in this case no creative process. The real contradiction and tension that drives this whole process it the difference between the real and the ideal, when those two things are one then it is game over. [1]

In the end either you have given up and your ideas have become the real or you have achieved them and the real has become your ideal, either way, the creative process is over, it is the journey in between that matters where you are fueled by the difference between the two. The solution may take the form of an institution, a process or technology, but what the innovation is, is really the product of your resolution of the contradiction you manage to live with and resolve during the process of innovation.

Put simply if you don’t feel uncomfortable with yourself about something you are fundamentally not creating. It is when you put yourself into a space that is uncomfortable for you, when you accept and live with some opinion or perspective that creates dissonance with your accepted paradigm, that is the opportunity for innovation and change. Indeed we might extrapolate that out to say that it is our collective societal discontent with the world we have created that is the fuel enabling systems changes on a macro-level. Tension may be the fuel but the actual innovation process requires deep insight, prolonged analysis, systems design, and development.


As we will discuss in a coming module if you want to innovate in a system it is not just necessary that you understand the current form of that system but also understand it in the abstract. Understanding the system in the abstract shows you the full set of possibilities for that system and it is that set of possibilities that creates the space for innovation. By understanding what you are dealing with as a system you will be able to see what its function is and that provides some rationale as to what is better and what is worse. It is only with insight that we can see beyond what exists to what might exist.


Complex systems are counterintuitive, our first understanding of the system and the problems at hand are typically close to the complete opposite of what is really going on. The people and organizations within the system will have all sorts of agendas that will create all sorts of narratives surrounding the nature of the system and where the problems are coming from. To actually understand what is going on requires deep and prolonged analysis of how the parts interrelate to create the system’s behavior. All complex systems have a history that shapes their present and future, it is critical to understand how the system has evolved to its current state and the evolutionary potential that exists within the system now which will enable it to move forward.


With systems innovation we are not creating something new, all complex systems are the product of long evolutionary processes, we never really get a clean slate to simply build a new one from scratch, all we can do is work with the evolutionary potential within the system. Systems innovation is costly and rare, systems don’t change fundamentally unless they really have to because it is a difficult costly exercise that the system might not survive. It is part of the basic survival mechanism of a system not to undertake large scale structural change unless it is absolutely necessary. Of David Snowden’s three necessary conditions for innovation, the first two are starvation and pressure.[2]

As such it only happens when a complex system is in a state of transition, in a normal state you only get incremental innovations, it is only during transitions when the system is in a state of crisis and exponential change that it has the potential to adopt a new way or model of organization. It is only during phase transitions that there is enough positive feedback to drive exponential change and qualitative changes in structure. System change is about enabling these nonlinear transitions. To do systems innovation is to understand the basic structures of the current system and the potential to evolve to a higher level of organization along some set of trajectories.


Complex problems require a prolonged effort by a multiplicity of actors, to coordinate that effect requires the building of a platform that can support a network of actors to coordinate around the given issues. Take for example the issue of obesity, if we were to look at all of the drivers behind obesity, there is no single one, in fact, there are maybe 50 to a 100 different drivers behind it with probably hundreds of different organizations that are producing and impacting the level of obesity.[3]

In a world like that, a command and control centralized organization will not work, one genius sitting in a room is not going to solve the problem, these complex problems require a form of innovation which is fundamentally democratized and distributed but also coordinated and working together over a prolonged period. In short, don’t build an organization because most of the people and resources you will need to tackle the issue will be outside of it, only a tiny fraction of the resources you need to tackle the issue will be inside of it and thus it will not be able to do much. To harness those resources outside you need to instead create a network, a platform as a vehicle for collaboration and coordination.

1. YouTube. (2018). Peter Senge on Creative Tension. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].

2. YouTube. (2009). Apollo 13 [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2020].

3. Ulijaszek, S., & Potter, C. (2020). Figure 1: Foresight obesity systems map (Vandenbroek P, Goossens J,... Retrieved 19 August 2020, from

Systems Innovation

  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Facebook