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Systems Change requires new ways of thinking and doing

Carlos Blanco is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA student and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, an ever growing and popular discussion by social entrepreneurs, systems change.

An organisation in Pakistan that enables smallholder rural, off-grid farming communities to meet their farming and household needs using livestock as currency. A network of entrepreneurs built up in the favelas of Brazil. An NGO skirting anti-abortion laws by providing access to safe procedures in international waters. A private company building a new business model that monetises fuel efficiency while introducing more sustainable fuel sources. What do all these examples have in common? According to Dr Paulo Savaget and Professor Steve Evans they represent different ways to achieve Systems Change.

A solar powered water system in Pakistan
A solar powered water system in Pakistan

Systems change is hot stuff right now. Across organisations trying to create sustainable impact the new holy grail is to affect large-scale systemic change. But what is a systemic problem? What is Systems Change? And how do we affect Systems Change? On Tuesday 12 November Paulo and Steve provided a masterclass on Systems Change through the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship that touched on each of these questions.

There are many ways to conceptualise systems change

Paulo started by highlighting the characteristics of systemic problems. They can’t be solved by a single organisation, have no single solution, are bound within a system that is greater than the sum of its parts, are poorly specified, are self-reinforced and are interconnected.

Paulo then outlined early insights from the Skoll Centre’s System Change Observatory that identified seven ways Systems Change is conceptualised:

  1. Disrupting the status quo
  2. Influencing chains of cause-and-effect
  3. Empowering agents
  4. Coordinating agents better
  5. Scaling change in numbers or scope
  6. Scaling institutional or cultural change
  7. Scaling an organizational model

There are three pathways to action

According to Paulo and Steve there are three pathways to affect systems change.

Intervening in the configuration and features of a system

Paulo highlighted from his research (Sustainability Hacking: conceptual development and empirical exploration) on sustainability hacking to bring this pathway to life.

A sustainability hack is an unconventional solution that deviates from embedded institutions, i.e. the rules of the game, to address a systemic problem. Sustainability hacks work around the ‘rules of the game’ to accomplish ‘good-enough’ results promptly. Paulo went on to present the five ways sustainability hacks intervene in the configuration and features of a system: emulating value flows; repairing missed value; exploiting a loophole; mirroring feedback loops; reformulating the logic.

Getting the best out of interdependencies

Steve outlined that this pathway requires systems thinkers to first search for connections within a system, particularly those connections that are not obvious or seem illogical. If you can’t find those connections, you then need to expand the boundaries of the system and make the problem bigger to find the variables in the system people ignore.

Looking beyond the organisational-level

The final pathway involves understanding the four failed value exchanges among multiple stakeholders (e.g. investors, employees, suppliers, customers, the environment or society) across a business network:

  • Value missed – I give but don’t get a return
  • Value destroyed – I give but you don’t want
  • Value surplus – I have too much
  • Value absence – you want but I don’t give.

Steve argued that when organisations map each of the four failed value exchanges across their broad set of stakeholders they uncover new value opportunities that redefine the system in which they operate.

Systems thinkers and leaders need to reframe systemic problems and recognise their limits

Steve challenged the room to change how each one of us thinks about systemic problems. Instead of setting targets and objectives, he challenged us to influence the systems around us by reframing systemic problems with ambitious visions for the future. Paulo then reminded us that systems thinkers need to recognise their limits and understand that in complexity, we can’t find a solution, only ‘manage messes’. Most importantly, systems thinkers and leaders need to be humble and recognise the extent of their ignorance to affect Systems Change.

Author bio: Carlos Blanco is an Oxford MBA 2019-20 student. For the past five years he has worked with the not-for-profit, government and private sector in Australia to drive systems change. He is increasingly interested in building broad coalitions of government, not-for-profit and private sector organisations to address humanities most pressing systemic problems.