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Lessons on designing and implementing systems change initiatives

Reos Partners
May, 2024

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For over 20 years, Reos Partners has worked with multi-stakeholder groups to address pressing societal challenges that no single entity can solve alone. The system change efforts we support convene diverse stakeholders from across sectors and perspectives who engage together over time in a collaborative, systemic, and experimental process.

Through the lens of radical collaboration, this article reflects on and shares some of the lessons we’ve learned to help inform the design and implementation of systems change initiatives.

Whether you’re a seasoned changemaker or new to systems change, this article will provide valuable insights to foster collaboration and drive impactful change by highlighting five lessons:

  1. Engage varied perspectives
  2. Create new narratives
  3. Recognise hidden actors
  4. Leverage network weavers
  5. Embrace intergenerational wisdom


Engage varied perspectives

Having a diverse range of perspectives is vital for effective systems change initiatives, as it brings unique insights, experiences, and knowledge to the table. Diverse perspectives aren’t just about different ways of seeing a situation; they influence how a system operates, and if not acknowledged or understood, they can reinforce stagnation. However, diverse perspectives can be a powerful force for change when recognised and harnessed.

When engaging varied perspectives, it’s important to create inclusive spaces and platforms where individuals from different backgrounds and sectors can come together and share their ideas and feedback. Actively seeking and valuing diverse perspectives helps create a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable systems change initiative.

A project that comes to mind is Chile to 2030, which brought together Chileans from diverse backgrounds. Using transformative scenarios, we worked with Tenemos Que Hablar de Chile (We Have to Talk About Chile) – a collaborative citizen advocacy platform – to create scenarios to influence and contribute to public policies and help engage citizens in the country’s major political events.

 

Chileans coming together for a workshop in Santiago

Chileans coming together for a workshop in Santiago as part of the Tenemos Que Hablar de Chile initiative. Photo by Maira Troncoso.


In this interview, Reos Partners Project Lead Gerardo Marquez and Tenemos Que Hablar de Chile Deputy Director Valentina Rosas share details about the project, the innovative approach, and their hope for its impact on the country and its people.

When asked how they went about convening a diverse group of stakeholders for this project and why diversity was necessary, they said the following:

“We worked together to cast a vast network, considering who has distinct points of view that reflect the country's diversity. They were diverse in multiple domains and held various roles within Chilean society, including academics, business leaders, journalists, activists, athletes, NGOs, youth, and more.” 

– Gerardo Marquez

“We were thinking about profiles, the type of leaders we wanted to include—everyone from environmental activists to CEOs of both big companies and startups. Chile is a very centralised country, so we wanted to bring in people from different regions of the country, too. The participants had never met each other before but soon realised things they had in common. They were grateful to be a part of the conversation.”

– Valentina Rosas

Create new narratives

Narratives are the stories, beliefs, and values that shape people's understanding and perception of the system. You can shift the collective mindset and drive transformative change by challenging existing narratives and creating new ones.

When designing a systems change initiative, we endeavour to create a space in which new ways of thinking and acting can emerge. Providing this safe container also allows learning, trust-building, re-imagining, innovation, and new narratives to occur.

New narratives can inspire hope, foster trust and collaboration, and mobilise action. Take the Re-imagining International Non-Governmental Organisations (RINGO) project.

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Watch a video with RINGO Convenor Deborah Doane to learn about the RINGO journey.


RINGO is a global, cross-sectoral systems change initiative seeking to support INGOs in delivering a better, more balanced civil society where power and resources are more equally shared. In partnership with Rights CoLab and the West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI), we convened a unique social lab of innovators who represent the system of global civil society (including local partners, funders, and INGO leaders).

A core element of this process was changing the narrative about the relationship between the North and the South and the power imbalance between them. Mpinane Mahlatji, a member of the Reos Partners project team, adds:

“To aid the development of new narratives, we asked participants questions such as, ‘How might we disrupt colonial/traditional perceptions of capacity, knowledge and expertise, rather than perpetuating the narrative of the north doing capacity building ‘to’ southern civil society?’ By posing these questions, participants could discuss and unpack the existing, harmful narratives and create new, hopeful narratives to transform the INGO sector.”

Recognise hidden actors

Hidden actors are individuals or groups who wield significant power and influence within a system but may not be readily apparent or visible at the surface level. These actors could include informal leaders, gatekeepers, and marginalised groups within the system.

They may hold vital information, relationships, or power that can either facilitate or impede progress towards transformation. By identifying and engaging with these hidden actors, system change efforts can better anticipate and address potential obstacles or leverage points within the system.

System change initiatives may need to employ strategies to build trust, foster relationships, and promote transparency to engage with hidden actors effectively.

 

The Brazil education scenarios team

The Brazil education scenarios team preparing for a nature retreat.


The Brazil education scenarios project is an example of the influential role hidden actors can play. In this instance, it was parents and parent groups. During this process, we brought together a team of education stakeholders in Brazil to engage in dialogue about the different and often conflicting perspectives on what is required to transform the future of basic education in the country.

As the project progressed, parents and parent groups emerged as hidden actors that play an essential role in the education system. Mille Bojer of Reos Partners commented:

“Parents are a key influential actor in education, both in terms of their role outside of school and in influencing schools – including their openness or lack of openness to their children’s education differing from their own. In the education scenarios process, at first, the parent representatives felt overlooked and excluded, and this led to a transformative dialogue about their role and the ways in which exclusion is often unintentional in the system.” 

Leverage network weavers

Network weavers can play a crucial role in systems change initiatives by connecting individuals, organisations, and communities to build relationships and facilitate collaboration. Acting as a bridge between silos, network weavers have a strong ability to connect people and resources within a system. They can help identify key stakeholders, increase coordination among disparate parties, navigate complex networks, and mobilise collective action towards system transformation. 

On the surface, network weavers don’t have a tremendous amount of power. They are not your CEO or minister, but they have the agility to act, sometimes independently, without institutional constraints. They know people across different parts of the system, so they can connect parts that don’t usually connect and integrate efforts within an action or movement.

Another essential aspect of leveraging network weavers is building solid relationships with them. By establishing trust and mutual understanding, you can create a network of support that will be instrumental in implementing your systems change initiative.

 

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Watch highlights from the Cyprus Futures transformative scenarios launch event, where network weaving formed a fundamental part of the process. 

Network weaving is a core design feature of our processes, where we convene a diverse group of people to work on a problem and create deep trusting relationships across the silos within the group. An example is a collaboration we supported between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus using transformative scenarios. New networks were weaved across the divided island, enabling this diverse group of people to work across their differences to develop scenarios for the future of Cyprus

Alexandros Lordos, one of the scenario team members, reflected on the exercise as follows:

“…what this scenario process has helped me with is to make sense of my frustration. And how does it make sense? I was hitting against people that were pursuing other futures and we never spoke about what that other future was… And because these underlying assumptions that we had were never discussed, we were all just arguing at each other and getting angry at each other and starting to dislike each other. I really think this scenarios approach can help us to start listening, to understand that we have collectively failed to work out where we are going and maybe by listening and understanding each other’s perspectives, we can see how we can proceed.”

Embrace intergenerational wisdom

Embracing intergenerational wisdom can be fundamental in designing and implementing systems change initiatives. Every generation has unique perspectives, experiences, and skills that can contribute to the effort. You can tap into a wealth of knowledge and innovation by fostering intergenerational collaboration and learning.

To encourage intergenerational wisdom, it’s beneficial to create opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue between different generations and to foster mutual respect and learning.

 

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Watch a video about the Drenthe social lab, an intergenerational project to accelerate the province’s energy transition.


An intergenerational partnership approach was core to the Drenthe social lab, a project we supported in the Netherlands. The social lab centred around the question, “How can we use the knowledge, wisdom and innovative power of different generations to radically accelerate the energy transition in Drenthe?” The project brought together people from different professions, backgrounds, and ages. The youngest participant was 16, and the oldest was 60.

By tapping into the collective wisdom of multiple generations, systems change efforts can create more inclusive, comprehensive, and enduring solutions to complex societal problems.

Charles Hussels, a participant in the Drenthe social lab, had the following to say about the process:

“I’m leaving here very happy. I’ve had a lot of very good conversations with young people who work at demolition companies, young entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, young people in the creative sector, and I like that so much, the diversity. And I think we need this diversity.”

Conclusion

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to designing and implementing systems change efforts, but we hope that the lessons we’ve shared will provide some guidance towards driving meaningful and holistic transformation. 

To recap, here are the five lessons highlighted in this blog post to support the design and implementation of systems change initiatives:

  1. Engage varied perspectives
  2. Create new narratives
  3. Recognise hidden actors
  4. Leverage network weavers
  5. Embrace intergenerational wisdom
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