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June 18, 2014

What makes a system changer?

No matter where the pressures come from, a huge amount of energy and resource gets invested in making sure that the systems around us are able to cope with the ever changing demands placed on them. If our systems aren’t fit for purpose they will collapse – or at least that’s the fear that seems to drive this constant search for innovation. But how does one make these changes?  An interesting take on what systems innovation feels like, from those who seem to be good at it.



Point People

 From climate change to poverty to healthcare, the large, complex social, environmental and economic problems we face today are too big for any one organisation to tackle alone. They require us to work together in new ways to address the root causes of problems and to create new outcomes that can change entire systems.

The failure of many of the systems that underpin modern life is increasingly difficult to avoid, so it’s not surprising that interest in ‘systems innovation’ is growing fast. At the Point People, we’ve seen pioneers emerging in this field from different sectors, leading very different kinds of organisations and speaking very different professional languages.

We had a hunch that these frontrunners could tell a compelling story about what systemic innovation looks and feels like in practice. So we put them in front of a camera and asked them a handful of questions.

This project was made possible thanks to the generous support of Green Templeton College, the University of Oxford

The system compass

Systems Changers

Although we spoke with people from very different backgrounds, common insights emerged that crossed these professional boundaries. These fall into six themes:

First – the craft of collaboration is vital to systemic change. This is easy to say, much harder to do in practice. The interviews highlight key ways in which deep collaboration can occur, as well as some of the significant barriers to achieving true partnership.

Second – narrative is crucial. Narratives help people understand how the systems they live in are socially constructed. They help us become aware of how we prop up failing systems, and how we can build new ones.

Third – theory and practice need to be understood as a double helix, inextricably linked. Our interviewees used different language to make this point – from appreciative enquiry to agile development – but behind this lies a shared, deeply held commitment to learning and iteration.

Fourth – systems change involves liminal spaces. Innovators need to be able to move in and out of the systems they are trying to change. Even when they are outside of the status quo, they are able to maintain a dialogue with it. If designed well, these liminal spaces can hold unstable groups of people together in the collective pursuit of change.

Fifth – systems change looks more like a movement than like change led from either ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’. Successful systems changers need to understand how to orchestrate multiple points of intervention, and align diverse interests with a common goal.

Sixth – systemic leaders are unafraid of the unknown – in fact, they embrace uncertainty. They are able to identify points of intervention and act in the face of complexity. They combine a desire to understand systems with a realisation that they will always have to take action without perfect knowledge.

Just as there were important points of agreement, the interviews also highlighted important tensions and questions:

•             Is it is possible to design for systems change at all?

•             Is systems change revolutionary or an evolution? .

•             Is systems change an elitist discourse that excludes more than it enables?

•             Do organisations and institutions play a key role in achieving systems change; or are they obstacles, part of the old system that gets in the way?