Systems Change: A High-Level Summary
We use the term system change to describe an outcome as well as an approach to social change.
In terms of an outcome, we describe a change as systemic if the way a system operates shifted and as a result produces a more positive outcome itself.
A system change follows a change in the root causes of an issue, as opposed to a surface level change which only addresses symptoms – meaning a change effort has not shifted the system to a new state, it is only adding more positive outcomes to existing dynamics.
While adding proven positive outcomes by offering products or services to those experiencing an issue is often one of the early steps for engaging with and learning about a dysfunctional system, scaling an organisation in order to offer more of the same interventions will rarely be sufficient to fundamentally change how it works and address the issue at a significant scale.
The limitations of this direct impact model are also evident through the need for everlasting intervention at very high resource intensity due to a largely linear relationship between invested resources and achieved impact. Regardless of economies of scale or low marginal costs, every potential increase in impact will always be tied to an increase in resources and there are most certainly never enough resources to grow, and sustain, operations as large as the issue itself.
It is important to note, however, that also a system change is never finished – even after a successful shift such as a policy change or widespread adoption of a better intervention, there might be a need to ensure the enforcement of a policy or the quality of delivery. Without actively maintaining the health of a system, opposing forces can also reverse a system change.
As an approach, system change therefore requires a break away from the linear relationship and instead employs strategies based on scaling indirect impact – allowing much further reach with a given amount of resources by focusing on changing existing dynamics.
For effective use of this approach, openness and collaboration are critical. If the system change requires widespread adoption and replication of a solution, it will be difficult if the owner holds onto it. If the system change requires actively influencing major players to change their ways of working, it can often not be achieved alone and requires a coalition of many.
Hence, system change generally needs a different type of leadership. Successful collective action requires much care and attention such as ensuring that vision and ownership are shared which will be difficult if the leader places themselves at the center rather than the shared vision – collaborations would remain transactional and fall short of leveraging their collective power.
System change of course needs system thinking, continuous learning, and adaptation. By thoughtfully considering the dynamic interconnected elements of a system like roles, relationships, norms, and needs, it is possible to lower the risks of unintended consequences and increase the chances of finding powerful leverage points for intervention.
Lastly, while system change naturally aims for larger-scale impact in relative terms, our definition is not bound to it being large-scale in absolute terms. As an approach to change it utilises indirect impact to help a system produce more positive outcomes. In the same vein, system change is not bound to large-scale organisations. In fact, even the smallest can and have achieved system change.