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Systems change: A practical overview on transforming systems

Reos Partners
June, 2024


Systems change is a challenging process that can leave even the most experienced change-makers feeling overwhelmed. Lasting transformation involves tackling deep-rooted causes, fostering collaboration amongst multiple stakeholders (including those who may be in opposition and/or disagreement with one another) and navigating complex dynamics, usually over extended periods.

For over 20 years, Reos Partners has helped multi-stakeholder groups and alliances worldwide move forward on their toughest, most intractable issues. These groups include but aren’t limited to governments, intergovernmental agencies, businesses, foundations, and civil society organisations.

We've created this overview to share what we have learnt with tried-and-tested systems change strategies and approaches to help you on your system transformation journey.

"Today's world demands systemic solutions: ways of changing whole systems rather than just their parts. Such solutions require not just technical knowledge, but also the artistry and creativity to see the big picture and the forces that are driving the problem."

Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust (2017).

What is a system, systems thinking, and systems change?

Before we dive into systems change, let’s lay the foundation by defining a system and exploring the concept of systems thinking.

A system is a set of interconnected parts that work together or influence each other. Whether it's the vast complexity of Earth's ecosystem or the intimate dynamics of a family unit, systems are all around us.

Pioneering systems thinker Donella Meadows identifies three things in a system:


Characteristics of a system

  1. Elements – individual parts that make up a system.
  2. Interconnections – the relationships between the elements.
  3. Function or purpose – what the system achieves.

For a more detailed exploration, read our blog Navigating systems change: 5 approaches for impact.

Systems thinking is a way of understanding and visualising systems by investigating the interconnections, relationships, and dynamics that exist between their components. It enables you to recognise how different parts of a system influence each other and how changes in one part can have a ripple effect on the entire system.

It is non-linear, meaning cause and effect are not necessarily connected with step-by-step chains.

Looking at a system from multiple perspectives enables you to see underlying patterns and interconnections and better understand how sometimes seemingly unrelated parts can impact each other.


Systems thinking graphic

A graphic illustrating linear thinking versus systems thinking. Credit: B. Haynes/NIST.


As Peter Senge, a leading authority on systems thinking, writes in The Necessary Revolution:

“If we see each problem—be it water shortages, climate change, or poverty—as separate, and approach each separately, the solutions we produce will be short-term, often opportunistic, “quick fixes” that do nothing to address deeper imbalances."

Systems change, on the other hand, is a holistic approach to tackling large-scale societal challenges. It refers to the intentional and strategic effort to transform a system, first by building an understanding of how it operates and then actively working to shift the underlying structures, norms, and behaviours that reproduce the system.  It involves addressing the root causes of complex issues (rather than the symptoms) and creating long-lasting and sustainable solutions.

In summary:

Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding systems, while systems change is a deliberate process of using systems thinking to drive transformation in a system. 

Now that we've covered some theory, let's delve into the practical application of systems change. The following sections will equip you with the knowledge and approaches to guide your system transformation journey.

For more on systems thinking, see FENCED”: Practical approaches to addressing complex challenges through systems thinking.

Can systems change?

You may be skeptical about whether deeply ingrained systems can change, especially when you are stuck or daunted by their sheer scale and complexity. 

Many initiatives fail. The ‘Thou Shalt Nots of Systems Change’ in the Stanford Social Innovation Review gives a useful, historical perspective on what not to do.

Yet true change is possible; in fact, systemic change is constantly happening. Although it’s usually “complex and long-term”, there are many prominent examples of entrenched systems completely transforming – from the global ban on landmines to women’s suffrage and the end of legalised segregation in the USA and South Africa. 

At Reos Partners, we have supported many systems change projects across a range of issue areas: 

  • The Méxicos Posibles initiative created a collaborative, inclusive space for a diverse group to co-create a “Responsible Mexico”, agreeing upon and addressing enormous challenges, including inequity and instability.
  • The Inclusive Insurance Innovation Lab (iii-lab) is improving access to insurance in several countries worldwide, including Albania, Ghana, Kenya, Mongolia, Argentina, Morocco, India, Zimbabwe, and many more. 
  • The dismantling structural racism initiative helped Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) unpack historical legacies of racism, how racism manifests as barriers to inclusion and belonging in MSF Southern Africa, and how to transform the organisational structures, policies, and cultures towards greater equity.
  • The Urban Laboratory for Food Public Policies in Brazil (LUPPA) is a collaborative platform transforming food systems by enabling Brazilian cities to build equitable and sustainable food systems.
  • The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) is an initiative that brings together philanthropy, local entrepreneurs, governments, technology, policy, and financing partners to support developing countries' transition to clean energy.
  • The addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in Southern African mining communities project helped a mining company address GBV across 11 operational sites. 

While it may seem daunting to tackle deeply ingrained systems, history and the few initiatives above show us that system transformation is possible.

Learn more about some of the initiatives we’ve supported in Lessons on designing and implementing systems change initiatives.

Five ingredients for effective systems change

Although there isn’t a single recipe to transform systems, we have found these five ingredients make systems change efforts more likely to succeed: 

  1. A cross-system team: A team of influential, insightful actors representative of the system’s many facets is a key strategy to ensure you consider all perspectives.  
  2. Skilled guides: Expert facilitators will help you navigate complex and confusing problems, overcome conflict, and move towards collaboration.
  3. A strong container: Providing a safe and structured space for your team to do their work encourages experimenting with new ways of talking and acting.
  4. The right resources: Social, human and financial resources must be available at the scale of the challenge you’re trying to solve.
  5. A generative approach: From their heads to their hearts and hands, enable breakthrough results with a creative, experimental approach that engages your team’s whole selves.

With these five ingredients in mind, we will explore how to apply proven approaches to transform systems.

Applying proven approaches for systemic change

Many approaches can effectively help to drive systems change. Below, we highlight three:

  • Radical collaboration
  • Transformative scenarios
  • Social labs

The most appropriate approach will depend on your situation, goals, stakeholders, and available resources. Let’s examine the approaches we have found most effective.

Radical collaboration

Radical collaboration is a way of working together with diverse others from across a given system that fundamentally transforms—rather than only superficially reforms—that system, and does so with the requisite speed, scale, and justice. Radical collaboration differs from conventional collaboration in that it involves not only focusing on the good and harmony of the whole, but also embraces conflict; not only on agreeing the problem, the solution, and the plan to implement the solution, but also on experimenting a way forward; and not only on getting other people to implement the plan, but also on recognising and stepping into one’s own role in the system. This approach is “radical” (from the Latin radix or root) in that it attends to the root of how we are and act as we work together.”

Adam Kahane in Radical Collaboration to Transform Social Systems: Moving Forward Together with Love, Power, and Justice

Through our work to develop the Radical Climate Collaboration Guidebook, we identified  seven core do’s and don’ts for radical collaboration:

  1. Play your role: Individuals assess their roles in collaboration, bringing in both intellect and emotion. 
  2. Find necessary allies: Seeking allies with shared goals and diverse skills is crucial, akin to building a powerhouse team. 
  3. Build collective power: Cultivating collective power involves combining everyone's assets for systemic change. 
  4. Work your differences: Embracing differences and navigating disagreements is key for smooth collaboration. 
  5. Discover ways forward: Exploring uncharted territories with a mindset of disciplined experimentation is advised.
  6. Share hopeful stories: Sharing hopeful stories collectively acts as a motivational fuel. 
  7. Care for yourselves: Taking care of oneself is emphasised, acknowledging the challenges of dealing with complex social issues.

Download the Radical Collaboration to Accelerate Climate Action guidebook to explore the seven practices further. 


The seven practices for radical collaboration.
The seven practices for radical collaboration.

For more on radical collaboration, read
Radical collaboration: Addressing complex challenges for systemic change and Shifts to enable radical collaboration for systems change.

Transformative scenarios 

Transformative scenarios is a powerful approach to shaping a better future. It enables diverse multi-stakeholder teams to construct shared understandings, build stronger relationships, and develop clearer intentions to create the potential to shape a better future. The process helps diverse actors to see the different futures that are possible and discover what they can and must do.

“By anticipating potential futures, organizations are emboldened to identify the actions needed in each scenario, enabling them to remain agile and responsive to global change.”

How to build your organization’s resilience with strategic planning

Our transformative scenarios approach typically follows three phases:

  1. Convening
    We start by clarifying the scope and purpose, identifying and mapping the stakeholders, establishing a convening power, and convening a diverse team that represents a microcosm of the system. 

  2. Construction
    The next phase involves meeting in workshops to build the scenarios, mapping driving forces, key certainties and uncertainties, generating and iterating scenario narratives, and writing the scenario text.

  3. Communication and engagement
    The final stage includes identifying the strategic implications of the scenarios, identifying individual and collective actions, disseminating the scenarios through multiple media and channels, and enabling strategic dialogues among target audiences.

“Scenario Thailand Foundation has partnered with Reos Partners in many endeavours since the political unrest in Thailand in 2011. We have learned and facilitated using Transformative Scenario Planning in various issues, from political conflicts to anti-corruption, both in-person and online approaches. Reos Partners is the true expert in facilitating truly immersive and participatory discussions in order to create collaborative efforts among those who may be in disagreement.”

Jaruwaree (Fah) Snidwongse, Ph.D., Scenario Thailand Foundation

Transformative scenarios is used with great effect in projects all over the world.

The Southern African Food Lab used transformative scenarios to foster collaboration between the state, private sector, civil society and academia to build a more equitable and ecologically resilient food system in South Africa. 

In the State of Rio de Janeiro, transformative scenarios were used to create a more sustainable future and formed a part of a larger process of social transformation of the State to align with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In Whistler, Canada, the approach has been used to drive conversation and collaborations to create a better future for the resort town. 


Participants taking part in a Reos Partners transformative scenarios course

Participants from over 20 countries/regions taking part in one of our courses on shaping the future using transformative scenarios.

If you’re interested in reading more real-world practical examples of transformative scenarios, including developing Oxfam International’s global strategy, transforming Brazil’s education system, and shaping the future of Cyprus, see Transformative Scenarios: Centering the future to enable dialogue across differences.

We also run facilitated courses on how to use transformative scenarios. If you’d like to learn more, please let us know here

Transformative scenario planning takes the well-established adaptive scenario planning methodology and turns it on its head—so that we construct scenarios not only to understand the future but also to influence it.” Adam Kahane

Social labs  

Social labs are collaborative interventions that bring together diverse stakeholders to address complex societal and systemic challenges. They provide a space for groups to explore and identify the root causes of a problem and then collaborate on co-creating, testing, and implementing new solutions. 

Social labs are used globally to create transformative and sustainable solutions that address societal problems.

  • The Sustainable Fashion Collaboration/Colabora Moda Sustentável brought together diverse stakeholders in Brazil’s fashion value chain to transform the industry and create ethical, sustainable fashion in the country.
  • The Electricity Innovation Lab (e-Lab) brought thought leaders and decision-makers from across the US electricity sector together to help them identify and undertake transformative initiatives to shift the industry from business as usual to sustainability.
  • The Drenthe social lab in the Netherlands saw people from different professions, backgrounds, and ages working together across their differences to accelerate the province’s energy transition.


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


Deborah Doane, Convener of the RINGO project (reimagining international non-governmental organisations), comments on the RINGO social lab we supported:

“Reos Partners have been at the forefront of designing our process and supporting our lab members throughout but also acted as mentors and coaches to our core team in Europe, the US, Ghana and Kenya. This was important because systems change processes are emergent, and the process of needing to be flexible and guided by members’ needs can be challenging. Reos was exemplary in holding our hand throughout. The success of the RINGO Lab, thus far, could not have been possible without the Reos Partners team. They have made a significant contribution to our work.”

Key takeaways

Overcoming unprecedented societal challenges requires changing the systems that have created and perpetuate these challenges. 

  1. Systems change requires a shift from treating symptoms to addressing underlying causes.
  2. Involving a diverse group of people from across the system is essential.
  3. It is possible to get people with different perspectives and interests to collaborate, even when they are in conflict. 
  4. There are many approaches to transforming systems, including radical collaboration, transformative scenarios, and social labs.
  5. Systems change is not easy, but it is vital to address the core challenges of our time.

We hope that the learnings shared in this guide help you play your part in creating equitable and sustainable change. If we can be of help, please get in touch

"If we want to change the systems we are part of – our countries, communities, organizations, and families – we must also see and change ourselves."

Adam Kahane Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities

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