It's no longer about whether systems change is needed to address big challenges, such as poverty or the climate crisis, but how to implement a complex systems approach.

Since early 2014, I have been working with organisations of The Omidyar Group (TOG) to bring systems and complexity thinking and practices into their work. Often I’ve been asked, “what do you know now about systems-change organisations that you wished you knew back then?” Here is how I answered that question.

The first step is to appreciate how difficult it is to move from a traditional, linearly structured and managed organisation to a non-linear, adaptive systems-change organisation. This chart captures several of the pain points.

The key is to build a change strategy that addresses these pain points proactively. Here are some ways to increase your odds of success:

1. Don’t over promise: beware the term 'systems change'

The usefulness of the term 'systems change' is that it signals a sharp contrast with more traditional, linear or 'clock-like' approaches to solving problems.

However, this masks the fact that the term means different things to different people and this lack of precision causes lots of problems. Key among them is that systems change can risk over promising: can we really change a complex system that is dynamic and ever-changing on its own? Does system change imply a level of causality that is unrealistic? By doing so we risk a disillusionment with 'systems change.' 

Regardless of the language we use, it is critical to convey three things:

  1. There is no fixed finish line as systems are 'infinite;' our goal is to improve the health of the system and its outcomes.
  2. No one organisation can change a system; systems change best when systems change themselves. Our goal is to support changes from within the system.
  3. We are not in control, the system is. What it means to be successful and accountable is very different than in traditional problem solving where you have more control over the process AND the outcome.

2. Shifting systems means shifting ourselves

Building a system-shifting practice requires treating our own organisation as a complex system. Are there patterns (norms, policies, structures, behaviours) that will help or hinder building a systems practice?

For example, in one organisation, a systems practice meant shifting from an 'expert model' of organisational culture, where individuals worked in siloed programmes, to one that required collective knowledge from diverse perspectives both in and outside the organisation. It meant changing incentive structures and operating procedures. All of this, plus the daunting challenge of systems change itself, was traumatic for staff.

We learned that working to shift systems not only means we have to show up differently externally, but we also have to show up that way internally. An organisation that aspires to work in emergent, non-linear ways, and shift power and control to others cannot work internally in ways that are linear, top-down, and command and control based.

3. Right-size your approach to your context

The choice is not whether to become a 'systems-change organisation' or not.

For example, TOG is made up of diverse organisations with distinct missions and capacities. For some, deep systems transformation work and practices, such as dynamic systems mapping, were appropriate.

However, for others it was not, yet these organisations felt they were being pressured into doing so. Understandably, this led to skepticism and push back as they saw systems and complexity practices as an all or nothing choice.

The key to overcoming this obstacle was to distinguish the different types of systems work and help organisations find the right applications of systems and complexity tools. Each organisation in TOG has found its own, distinct version of systems and complexity to apply, given the organisation’s goals, capacities and the contexts within which it works. (See the blog on The Complexity Spectrum for a fuller exploration of this issue).

4. Build your muscles for emergent strategy

More traditional notions of strategy as a well-honed plan that is executed unwaveringly are counterproductive when dealing with the murky, dynamic and unpredictable nature of complex systems.

But the alternatives are not well established. This caused what many in TOG called the 'systems to strategy gap;' where taking a complex system view led them to work in adaptive, non-linear ways, but which crashed against strategy processes that were pushing them to be linear and predictive.

To close this gap, strategy requires a shared consciousness that allows many systems-shifting actors to work, learn and adapt together. The strategy needs to evolve as the understanding of the underlying system evolves, as well as how various actors can work together effectively. This is emergent strategy, which enables actors to capture the value of emergent conditions. (For more on this, see the blogs on Governance for Systems Change and Building Emergent Organizations).

5. What, so what, now what: reorient your idea of success and how to measure it

Fundamentally, supporting system shifts means changing how you think about success and failure.

The idea of 'success' as we historically think of it is less relevant when it is impossible to predict exact outcomes or clearly attribute causality to anything your organisation did to produce it. Similarly, failure is not clear cut either. It is certainly not the bogeyman to be avoided when the dynamic, long-term, and murky nature of systems work means you may well 'fail' much more than you 'succeed'. The key is to be prepared to learn from your engagements, be they seen as successes or failures.

Rather, complex systems work means constantly sensing the impacts of your actions (the what), making sense of them (the so what), and learning what they tell you about how the system operates and how to engage it effectively (the now what). There has been a lot of great work on how and why to do this  (e.g. see the work of Marilyn Darling, Mark Cabaj, Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, among many others).

In the end...

The most important factor in dealing with the organisational challenges of shifting systems is simply to make them transparent and discussable.

Sharing this blog with staff might be a good starting point.

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