Strategies for Implementing Systems Change

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Initiatives using change strategies in the tradition of Collective Impact (CI) work on the levers of systems change and collaborative action, while funders such as Co-Impact are seeking to find a new way to fund systems change activities.

At the SCO, we spoke directly to actors engaging in systems change to capture a brief snapshot of the strategies that are salient to them in their day-to-day practice. The following list represents a distilled version of the topics that were raised:

Collaborative Change:

Often, the problem to be addressed is so large and complex that it is outside the scope of a single organisation to solve it.

As a single organisation, you pick a geography and a service, and you grow bigger and bigger and attract more resources. In order to create a systems focused organisation, you go big at the beginning.”

– Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA

One of our contributors shared that their journey started with a focus on growing one organisation, but they were leveraging their learning to tackle a problem faced by a billion people. This led them to start an organisation informed by collaborative initiatives and alliances looking to solve a problem in its entirety. It was critical for them to be a neutral broke/r, so they spun out of a social venture into a multi-sector coalition solving the same problem but with a new set of tools. Now they are bringing the government and private sector into the solution to solve for scale.

While a major focus in this space is on toolkits, building relationships in this space to work in collaboration is equally important.

“Changing systems is a lot about realignment of relationships within a system. Connecting new people to people they were not working with before.”

– Systems Innovation Expert, UK

Field Building:

Another key activity that a systems change venture undertakes is building the sector and focus on the problem itself.

One of our contributors started by asking where they can add value in the field. They made the case that their target problem was a global development issue and put a spotlight on it with a front-page article in a major news publication. They continue to advance the work by discussing how to solve the problem, building a roadmap to reach 1.5 billion people. This is a role that no single organisation could fill.

Understanding Power:

It is critical to be aware of the power you hold in the system. A contributor running a financial inclusion venture stated that they spent significant time as a small player building an ecosystem in the geographies in which they worked. Over time, their organisation and the sector grew, making it more appealing for major incumbents in parallel sectors to enter the space. Due to their power in the system because of easy success and visibility, the venture came to be part of  an exclusive group of key policy professionals working to grow the sector and establish best practices at the policy level in multiple countries across an entire continent.

“It about power, which is often not talked about. Are you aware of your power, the system and how you can influence this change?”

– Systems Innovation Expert, UK

For a note on power to cause harm, see point below on Impact Measurement under ‘Funding Systems Change Activities’.

Taking a backseat:

There is a delicate balance between being a servant and a thought leader. Both skills are required to undertake systems change. This requires a lot of listening and developing a positive reputation for being more of a listener than a talker.

“From studying organisations that manage to shift systems, we know that they identify what needs to happen in the system and then let go of being the ones to do it.”

– Director of a Social Entrepreneurship Incubator, UK

Iterative learning:

Experimentation and iterative learning are also key. This work requires engagement in constant learning from various approaches used. This also prompts us to recognise the limited control any one actor has when trying to change a system. Unanticipated changes can also change systems and we have to be cognisant of that.

Funding Systems Change Activities:

With the increasing importance of ‘field catalysts’ that galvanise systems-change efforts of disparate stakeholders to achieve population-level change, how do we fund these systems change efforts? Our contributors noted several interconnected elements needed for funders to effectively support systems change efforts. 

  • Impact Measurement: “Donors have to get better at understanding they are affecting a system just by putting money into a problem. You’d want to know the positive and negative impact of getting a grant or investment. How can we know the potential negative impact?  How do we account for negative impact?” –  Systems Thinking Educator working for a Nonprofit, USA
  • Understanding Systems: “A lot of prominent programmes in the sector are talking about deploying large sums of money for single organisations. This is a positive direction, but we have to observe how the capital that is deployed fits into the definition of systems change?” – Director of a Social Entrepreneurship Incubator, UK
  • Funder Selection: “Selecting your investors and making sure that you have the right fit for the kind of systems work you want to do is very important. Are they willing to spend money on the systems changes that need to happen in that product or service market?” – Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA
  • Capacity Building: “How do we prepare foundations for the type of work they want to do? At the end of the day, if programme officers define who gets funding, how can they think about this differently? We see a need for a thought partner to donors on how this affects their grant making.” – Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA

Designing a system change intervention requires consideration of a range of strategies that are system-focused and enacted from the beginning of an intervention. The values of field-building, collaborative change and ‘taking a backseat’ are prominently applied by practitioners. Practitioners also note the value of understanding their role and power in the system in which they work, and how important it is to pick the right funder for implementing their systems change activities.

Author: Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA from the Saïd Business School in 2018.