What is Systems Change

The term systems change is a relatively new one, coming to prominence within just the last decade, as such it is safe to say that it is still in its formative stage with many different perspectives on what it is exactly. We may find many people using the same term but depending on their background it means many different things. Before we start let us take a look at a number of these interpretations.

Ashoka defines systems change in terms of tackling root causes: "Systems change is an approach to tackling the root causes of a problem by identifying and creating shifts in the systems that are responsible for the problem."[1]

The author and advisor Charlie Leadbeater talks about it in terms of transformation and new rules: "Innovations which are transformative and generative; which change the rules of the game, create new relationships and create, with that, new flows and resources through society."[2]

Forum for the Future's definition is in terms of changing systems pattern or structure: "System change is the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure. That pattern being the physical structure, the flows, and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in new goals of the system."[3]

John Kania, who developed the systems change practices at New Profit, talks about it in terms of shifting the system conditions when he says: "We're thinking about systems change not as an issue or a person that needs to be fixed… it's the set of conditions that surround that individual. We need to work on shifting the conditions that hold the problem in place."[4]


In many ways, we can see the rise of systems change as a response to the growing complexity of the challenges faced by societies around the world. As a function of this complexity, we are moving from a world where one organization could drive changes to a world where that is no longer possible because of the scale, interconnectivity, and complexity of the issues today.

The reality is that when you are addressing large-scale complex challenges and you are sincerely motivated to find solutions then one quite quickly realizes that what you need are methodologies that are significantly different from current ones. New innovation methodologies, different mindsets, you need a new kind of leadership, you also need different ways of collaborating and organizing people around a given issue.

As Kyle Peck says: "Systemic change is an approach to change that acknowledges the complexity of the way the world really works." Systems change embodies this realization and draws upon a new set of ideas from complexity and systems thinking to provide an approach that is more appropriate given the complexity of these issues.

It is precisely the complexity of today's issues that defies traditional transactional or singular interventions; allowing the problem to perpetuate, be it climate change, homelessness, conflict, segregation, or intergenerational poverty.

For those who are really committed to dealing with these "wicked problems" the emphasis shifts to the structure of the systems that are creating the problems rather than just dealing with the symptoms. As James Greyson of BlindSpot Think Tank remarks: "If we were totally serious about climate change, then actually we would be looking at something much more systemic. We would actually be seeing climate change as a symptom, not just as a cause and the symptom being a result of the way that we run the world. The way that we set up the systems that we all live within because currently, they are setup to cause climate change and a range of other problems."


Seeing and tackling these "root causes" derived from systems structure requires a more holistic way of seeing the world. Systems change is based upon the paradigm and ideas of systems thinking which is a holistic view of the world; we are always reasoning upwards to try and understand a system within its whole environment and context. This holistic approach allows us to recognize the many dimensions and facets to a system, to embrace this complexity rather than trying to reduce it.

Jocelyne Bourgon expresses this key multidimensionality tenant of systems change when he says: "Complex issues are multidimensional and whenever you try and reduce them to a single dimension you are on the verge of making a dramatic mistake because by prescribing a solution that is unidimensional you are about to make the problem even worse."

Systems change is a response to the complexity of the world we live in and with that an acceptance that there is no "silver bullet." Indeed it is a recognition that such a narrow approach often makes the problem worse in the long run.

Systemic change is a change that takes into account all the various pieces that influence a system, that means the people, the politics, the values, the reward systems, and the many other factors. Too often we see social interventions that are ‘service-rich and system-poor.’ People are bombarded by interventions from different providers, all of which add up to less than the sum of the parts. It is the system itself that pushes people into difficult situations or prevents them from getting out and no simple summation of isolated interventions adds up to systems change.

Holistic Approach

This holistic approach is very important as a starting condition when dealing with complex systems. As Petra Kuenkel, director of the Collective Leadership Institute, notes: "Wholeness, at a large scale, is our ability to look at things from a distance and to take into account a larger perspective, because if we don't do this we do not only act in isolation, we may act in the naivety that the positive intention that we have will have a positive impact and it may not necessarily be the case, because we have not taken into account a larger context."[5]

Systems thinking, as the foundation for systems change, is important because it helps to elevate our thinking to the systems level. When we can do this our approaches can become radically more innovative and effective.

Think about a transport system, we see a bus passing, it is overloaded with people, so we think "Oh, the transport authorities should put on more buses." This is a scarcity mindset that is inherent to a component-based vision of the world. If we can elevate our thinking and vision to the systems level we might start to see the bus as part of an overlapping set of different networks. This vision would let us see that maybe instead it is a product of the lack of coordination between the different transport modes that creates bottlenecks. This, in turn, would lead to us developing an alternative strategy, perhaps to restructure the system by better understanding the networks of connections and connecting things in new ways, then maybe we would not need more buses. Indeed our initial solution based upon a partial view of the system may well have made things worse, by adding congestion and perpetuating a system that had structural dysfunctionalities.

A central premise here is that people have to become aware of the systems they form part of before they can operate on that level and start to effect change at that level. Indeed it is precisely this that we are struggling with as societies; that we are not really aware of the complex systems we are a part of or how they work, which means we have little to no capacity to intentionally shape them. The result of this is that all we can do is react to unforeseen events when they occur and then create some rationale as to why they occurred so that we feel like we are in control.

Petra Kuenkel puts it well when she remarks: "any sustainability challenges we are dealing with, they are actually a result of a fragmented way of thinking... so can we take [our thinking] one level up so that we can defragment the thinking so that we can defragment the actions."[6]

Nonlinear Change

Systems change is a theory of change that is nonlinear. It is based upon complexity and systems theory's understanding of complex nonlinear organizations and how they change over time. This nonlinear approach stands in contrast to most theories of change that are based upon certain assumptions of linear causality; stability, predictability and the capacity to directly affect the system toward changing in a prespecified desired direction.

The dominant, mechanistic paradigm we live with today views change as something that can be “managed” through centralized, top-down design processes that produce clear, predictable outcomes. This type of linear cause-and-effect thinking has influenced the design and development of our Industrial Age institutional arrangements that contribute to many of the global wicked problems we face today.

A new cross-domain collection of knowledge dealing with the dynamics of change within complex systems is now emerging that challenges these assumptions and has the potential to create new approaches to management, design and problem-solving. Insights from a diversity of fields such as mathematics, physics, ecology, sociology, and organizational development have revealed that change within open, complex systems takes place in counterintuitive ways. Although change within such organizations can be stimulated and even lightly directed, it cannot be managed or controlled, nor can outcomes be precisely predicted.[7]

Acceptance of the nonlinear nature to complex organizations and the fact that we can not directly change them through linear causal interaction leads to a new approach to change and a whole new kind of strategy. The strategy of the systems changer is about identifying "leverage points" and then performing "systems acupuncture" to strategically influence those important points in the system, where small interventions can have long term lasting effects. Systems change eventuates when the interventions are made in the right place, given the right motives and combined in the right way. This is about shifting the conditions that hold the problem in place and it takes multiple synchronized and coordinated interventions at leverage points that are often found at counter-intuitive places in the system and typically not easy to find.


Systems change is certainly not a theoretical exercise, it aims at actually changing the complex systems that make our economies and societies work - or not work as the case may be. Thinking in systems, having a holistic view, identifying leverage points and formulating a strategy is just the beginning.

The aim is to build ecosystems of actors that have a shared understanding of the system making them capable of collective action. These ecosystems of actors need to develop shared system diagrams to build everyone's awareness; to build shared language. This is about building the collective intelligence of the group and their collective agency.

Beyond awareness, these platforms need to have agency through collaborations that enable a diversity of actors across the system to start to synchronize their activities in synergistic ways. Platforms for system change work to build systems awareness through bringing people together, creating structures that enable them to work together, make collaboration an attractor and demonstrate value to the stakeholders. Likewise, they have to build adaptive learning feedback loops for the network to explore and learn about the problem and possible solutions.

Collaborative change requires building shared understanding, shared language and ultimately some form of collective intelligence. This starts with recognizing the other actors and the need to work together, then coordinating, collaborating, synthesizing; the result is the emergence of some new functional pattern in the system. As Co-impact highlights in their approach: "Systems change is about realigning the underlying relationships, functions, incentives, and motivations to a higher (outcome-focused) equilibrium."[8]


Systemic innovations can be suddenly pushed forward by a crisis, cultural changes or disruptive technology among other things. More often they are the result of slow but cumulative processes entailing changing infrastructures, behaviors and cultures that reach a tipping point, at which stage large scale systems changes happen very fast; the fall of the Berlin Wall is but one such often cited example of systems change.

Other examples may include the Civil Rights movement in the US, the creation of welfare states in the mid 20th century, the spread of democracy. One of the most recent, large scale and dramatic illustrations of systems change may be the rapid spread of the market system around the world with the rise of economic globalization in the 90s and the changes in patterns of work, economic conditions, power and culture that it has resulted in for billions of people.

However, none of these processes of systems change were on the strategic level that we are looking for today; they changed systems, yes, but not in the strategic fashion we will be outlining in this book. Today we are searching for a more conscious and strategic way to influence and shape complex organizations when needed. It can be easily argued that examples of people doing such a thing, at the scale required, does not yet exist.

Systems change with intentionality, where we really bring new ideas and thinking together with deep insight and analysis combined with the formation of platforms for collaboration that drive comprehensives systems-level change within a large complex system such as the global food system or energy system, this has not been realized at scale yet.

We have changed systems but we have never really consciously and strategically changed one of the kinds of global systems - to a higher equilibrium - that ultimately need to be changed if we are going to realize sustainable outcomes for all. Such things it could be argued are largely beyond us today and thus true examples probably do not exist yet, but hopefully lie somewhere in the future. We might say that it is part of the systems change movement to bring them into being as an example of possible ways forward.

We highlight this in an attempt to ensure that systems change remains an active endeavor on all levels, both on the small scale but also on the largest scales possible. In a talk by Indy Johar, he framed the situation well by saying "The scale of change, if we want to survive as a global civilization, will be of an order that is unimagined, let us start the conversation from that perspective."[9]

1. Systems Crash Course by Ashoka: Identify a Systems Change ​You Can Focus On(2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEOeRA5SrqA

2. The future of social innovation – Canada and the world | socialinnovationexchange.org. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://socialinnovationexchange.org/insights/future-social-innovation-canada-and-world

3. System change for sustainability. (2018). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.forumforthefuture.org/navigating-system-change

4. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from http://efc.issuelab.org/resources/30855/30855.pdf

5. The Collective Leadership Compass and its Dimensions On(2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEeAwoNTUwo

6. The Collective Leadership Approach as Fractal of Large Systems Change in Collaboration Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDCBZzrqwPs

7. Theories of Change – Transition Design Seminar CMU. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://transitiondesignseminarcmu.net/classes-2/theories-of-change/

8. Our Systems Change Approach - Co-Impact. (2020). Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.co-impact.org/our-systems-change-approach/

9. Urban Provocation #1: Towards a Civic Future Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL4eMChMyqg

Systems Innovation

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