I moved jobs last May because I was ready for a new challenge and I wanted to focus on understanding how to better effect system change – this blog is largely about the kinds of changes I want to see in the world but I am also starting to reflect on what system change means and how you make it happen.
System change is a term with connections to a number of fields and is starting to be used with respect to a more integrated view of public sector reform. This report from the Kings Fund is a good introduction to system leadership in the NHS for example and this project from the point people provides a good overview of system change from a practitioner perspective. More theoretically, the term is based on a sociotechnical system view of the world which was a term first used by researchers at the Tavistock Institute after the second world war – but also links into approaches such as actor network theory.
Basically it requires you to acknowledge that everything within your described scope it probably connected, that the technology as well as the people have an effect and that you probably can only influence rather than dictate that effect.
I was reflecting on how I am trying to work as someone trying to effect system change and it helps me to capture these reflections so here you go:
- Have a plan: You need to know what kind of change you want to make happen – you can’t just run around saying change everything – you need a coherent theory of change and an idea as to what good will look like. This blog is about me thinking that out and its definitely work in progress.
- Situate yourself in a useful place in the system: Start by understanding your place in the system you are working with and what you can already influence. The better your influence and the resources you can bring to bear on the problem the better chance you have of success.
- Find your tribe: You’re not going to do it alone – you need to find your tribe both in order to increase your influence but more importantly as the people you can go and get strength and support from when the current way of doing things punches you on the nose.
- Create spaces where change can happen: Change is a fragile thing – you need to create spaces which opens up the possibility and environment for change and the creation of new ideas – people need space to think different and ideas need nurturing. This is why I am so interested in innovation labs as an approach to system change.
- Do the work: you have to look for ways to connect innovation and change projects into the current ways of doing things – look at stuff like procurement, business case writing, project management systems and transformation programmes – this are all tools which can help your change scale if you work with them and make them part of the plan. This is dull but necessary and provides a vital bridge between old and new ways of doing things. This is one of the reasons that I wanted to move to work in a much bigger organisation – so I could get a better understanding of this stuff.
- Look for ways to connect change to the current way of doing things: Swim with the tide – look for places where projects can be influenced and shifted in the direction you want rather than trying to start from scratch all the time. Find people who are doing stuff and collaborate with them rather than always creating your own projects – be part of the system – but also be restless.
- How you work is as important as what you do: If this really is a sociotechnical system then behaviours and human connections mean as much as any technical change. Show respect for people who don’t immediately ‘get it’ – listen, collaborate and where you need to adjust your plan as you were probably wrong with your first idea – but thats ok.
- Look far ahead and in front of your nose at the same time: I am less and less of a mind to write a strategy – I am more inclined to work with people to develop a big ambitious vision and a series of reasonable steps towards it as no strategy ever survives contact with reality and change needs the momentum you gain from just getting stuff done
- Audacious optimism: Really. You are trying to change a WHOLE SYSTEM – you have to be ludicrously optimistic!
- Know you will fail: This is why the optimism is audacious . Your plans will be diluted down and you will make compromises but how you fail matters and if you have learned and if the world is a tiny bit better rather than a tiny bit worse then bank it as a win…..
Castells, when looking at the arab spring in his book Networks of Outrage and Hope spoke about the way in which networks of change move like a tsunami to overwhelm our established powers and structures but then flow back to leave them changed but still dominant (its a lovely piece of writing and I recommend it). This is how I see system change – an ebb and flow of effect which is utterly dependent on the energy of the people engaged in the process and where the most stubborn or the most important pieces of the old ways of doing are preserved – my final thought is the need to be mindful about what the old way of doing things you want to preserve so that we take the best parts of the past into the future.
I’m really interested to find out if this post captures other people’s experience of system change – if you don’t want to comment then please hunt me down and let me know.