Reos Partners has been at the forefront of promoting a systemic approach to societal transformation for many years. Yet, the concept of systems change often remains complex. What does it truly entail? How does it come about? And, crucially, what roles can various stakeholders play in contributing to this transformative process?
While the challenges of instigating systemic transformation are undoubtedly complex and deeply entrenched, we firmly believe that with the right set of tools and approaches, we can navigate these waters with care and wisdom.
In this article, we aim to unpack the concept of systems change and deep dive into the approaches that can be used to achieve change.
What is a system?
Pioneering systems thinker Donella Meadows defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something. … a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.”
Elements are the individual parts that make up a system.
Interconnections are the relationships between the elements.
Function or purpose is what the system achieves and is determined by the system’s behaviour.
To illustrate this, Meadow’s uses the digestive system as an example:
“the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach, and intestines. They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals. The function of this system is to break down food into its basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system), while discarding unusable wastes.”
Other examples of systems include schools, forests, organisations, cities, hospitals, and systems can be subsystems or larger systems. For instance, a tree is a system, and a forest is a larger system that encompasses subsystems of trees and animals.
With the above in mind, we explore what we mean by systems change next.
What is systems change?
Systems change then consists of intentional efforts to shift or transform these elements, their interconnections, and sometimes their purpose in order to create sustainable and positive outcomes and impacts on society.
When people talk about systems change, they are usually referring to systems like the “food system”, the “justice system”, the “health system”, and the “economic system” for instance. But it’s important to understand that from a systems thinking lens, there is nothing in life or society that is not somehow part of a system and/or a system in and of itself.
The world is a complex and interconnected set of systems!
Humanity is in a situation where our systems are creating a series of undesirable outcomes including climate change, inequality, biodiversity loss, and conflict.
Many of our systems are outdated because they were designed to serve the purpose of economic growth and political stability at a time when the resource constraints and societal makeup were different than they are today.
Sometimes systems need to change because their purpose is outdated, and sometimes societal changes mean the strategies for achieving a purpose are no longer effective. However, systems are incredibly resilient and tend to snap back when change is attempted only at a part of the system or at the surface level.
When supporting our partners with systems change, we practice a set of key ideas and approaches. These include:
Addressing "root causes"
Seeing and playing your role
Let's explore these in more detail.
5 Approaches to practicing systems change
1. Addressing “root causes”
Taking a systems view requires an awareness of (at least) two levels for engagement with a problem:
“Fighting fires” – which focuses on the event level, is concerned with reacting and responding to isolated incidents as these emerge. This can also be seen as “bandaid solutions” or addressing symptoms. It’s tempting to react at this level because it’s more visible and immediate.
“Addressing systemic drivers” – which focuses on the underlying structures and mindsets that are continuously reproducing the incidents we find problematic. This level is concerned with shifting the larger system that gives rise to and perpetuates a problematic situation, such as incentives, regulatory environments, power structures, technological innovations, and dominant beliefs and narratives.
Both are needed! Fighting fires alone leaves the roots of the problem to grow and evolve, while addressing drivers alone does little to protect individuals and societies exposed to harmful impacts with potentially devastating consequences.
In Reos, we often work with the “iceberg” model from systems thinking, which distinguishes four levels:
Seeing the full iceberg helps us to understand why the system is functioning as it does and what is producing the problems we see. Your ability to influence increases with your ability to understand and act on the deeper levels of the iceberg (structures and mental models).
The iceberg model illustrates what we mean by events, patterns, structures, and mental models.
Where does your organisation focus its attention and resources? To what extent do you focus your attention and dedicate resources to firefighting vs. to addressing systemic drivers? Why?
Given your organisation’s expertise, capacities, and networks, what other opportunities do you see?
Nothing exists in isolation. A systemic view acknowledges that the challenges we are facing are interdependent and interconnected.
It means paying attention to how a change in one part of a system may affect another and how trade-offs between different imperatives may be at play. Focusing on solving an immediate problem without a systemic perspective may have knock-on effects and, over time and space, lead to more severe problems. An example is cutting fossil fuel subsidies to solve climate problems without thinking about how workers will be affected.
A systemic view also acknowledges that while A may cause B to happen, it does so in a certain context, under certain conditions, and B also has an impact on other factors, possibly including A. So causalities are not simply linear and separate but every causal connection is part of a web of interactions.
Systems mapping can help us to understand and make sense of these interconnections including dynamic feedback cycles and reinforcing dynamics. It is not possible to see the entire system and to pre-empt every impact, but a systems map can help to expand our awareness.
Where might the strategy or actions you are currently pursuing have unintended consequences in another part of the system that you are not directly accountable for?
How might connecting your work with that of others improve your impact?
3. Understanding leverage
Leverage points are places where you can strategically take action to address a given situation. They are considered low leverage if a significant effort will lead to a small change and high leverage if a relatively small amount of effort can lead to a large change. Leverage points are connected to many other parts of the system and create extensive ripple effects.
In dealing with complex social problems, high-leverage areas are those that get to the bottom of the iceberg, to the level of structures and mindsets. One way of influencing leverage areas is through game-changing strategies. These are interventions that change the rules of the game by interceding at the structural level.
The closer we get to the bottom of the iceberg, the higher the leverage.
It’s important to understand though that leverage points are not silver bullets. It is not about finding a single intervention that will change the whole system on its own. Usually, there is a need for work on multiple leverage points concurrently.
How high leverage is the strategy you are currently pursuing?
To what extent is your strategy game-changing? Does it influence the situation at the level of rules of the game – structures, practices, mental models?
Are you aware of other actors working on the same or different leverage points and the importance of their work in complementing yours?
4. Diverse perspectives
When people – from activists, policy-makers, and journalists to business people, citizens, tech developers, educators and others – talk about societal problems and solutions, they often do so from particular perspectives. It can be helpful to turn to a specific perspective, discipline, or lens on complex systems in order to learn more deeply about some dimension or to frame complex problems in more actionable ways. But since the way we frame a challenge or problem influences the kinds of solutions we seek or see as relevant, it’s important to consider what different lenses bring into view.
No single dimension or perspective is adequate for fully capturing, explaining, understanding, or addressing a complex system. Combining, sharing and acknowledging multiple perspectives helps bring the larger system into view and can illuminate blind spots. It is therefore important in systems change to bring together diverse stakeholders in order to see the system as a whole more fully from different angles.
What lens do you primarily use to explain or understand the challenges you address in your work?
What does this lens help us see and understand about your challenges that other lenses may miss? (What features, dynamics, impacts, harms, etc?.)
What are some of the limitations of the lens you primarily use? (What does it miss that may be important to know about?)
How might combining lenses help create a fuller view of the challenges you are working on and the kinds of solutions that might be effective?
5. Seeing and playing your role
Systems change can be overwhelming if you don’t understand your own role and how to (in the words of Donella Meadows) “dance with the system” as opposed to controlling it. Systems change is not about everyone doing or seeing everything. This is a recipe for burnout and overwhelm.
Rather, reflecting on the roles we each play in a wider system can help generate important insights that are useful for identifying strategic opportunities and finding our niche contribution. Playing your role effectively also depends on being open to feedback in relation to the impact you are having on others and their needs and goals. This requires us to be in relationship and communication with other actors with whom we are interdependent.
What roles do you currently play?
Are you aware of actors playing other roles and the importance of their work in complementing yours?
How might you enhance your role in sharing your learning with others to strengthen the work of your allies?
As we confront complex global challenges, the concept of systems change offers a pathway to sustainable solutions. It requires a holistic understanding of systems, addressing root causes, acknowledging interconnectedness, leveraging strategic points, embracing diverse perspectives, and playing our roles effectively. While the road ahead may be challenging, with the right tools and collective effort, we can pave the way for a more resilient and sustainable future.
Systems change is not a one-time endeavour but a continuous process, necessitating ongoing reflection, adaptation, and collaboration to drive lasting and positive change.
Are you ready to find out more about driving lasting and meaningful change? Get in touch with us to find out more.
This blog draws on the Reos global impact strategy spearheaded by our global evaluation team particularly Nikhil Dugal, Brenna Atnikov, Ravenna Nuaimy-Barker and Lucas Matarazzo as well as work done by Mille Bojer and Lisa Rudnick to develop strategic guidance for systemic action.