All change is system change

All change is system change

All change is system change – to say otherwise is to ignore a fundamental truth about organisations being living breathing human systems.

There is a lot of great thinking going on in the system change space.  Rowan is leading some really interesting work at the RSA looking at the intersection of design and systems thinking and Anna Birney  is doing some amazing stuff with the school for system change at Forum for the Future.  The work that Tessy Briton is doing with Participatory city sits in this space as well as a large scale exploration of what it means to make real the idea that people are assets and actors in the system.   This post was sparked by a conversation with the ever inspirational Cassie Robinson but it also reflects on ongoing dialogue that  Rowan, Anna and others about system change – still a work in progress.  It also comes from the work I was doing on transformation methods while still at Capita and a growing frustration with the fact that attempts to control change were simply killing it.

If you want a bit of an intro to systems thinking then this book by Donella Meadows  is excellent and she has a number or resources and references on here that are also really helpful.

 I want to plug what I see as a gap – the application of system thinking to organisational change.  I am arguing that we should start to see all change – and especially organisational change – as being system change because only by doing that are we able to treat change as an organic and evolving process and ultimately to create a foundation from which we can operate outside of organisational boundaries and effect change in the wider system.  In this article I want to refresh the Industrial Age  trop of people/process/technology and replace it with something that fits the context of the network society.  I want to:

  • Change ‘people’ for  ‘networks’:  Lets not think of people as unit of resource inside an industrial model – instead let think about the power of collective action and the asset that provides
  • Exchange ‘process’ with ‘purpose’:  We want to create an environment where we unite behind common purpose and then iterate and improve the process that helps us to work to that purpose
  • Update ‘technology’ with ‘infrastructure‘:  Don’t just think about the technology but instead the operating context which will help you make change happen

This is work in progress and is a way of me thinking in public; questions, challenge and alternative views are very much welcome.


One of the (many) things that perplexed me when working in a more traditional corporate environment was the idea that ‘change’ was a separate work stream in a formal programme structure which could be measured and delivered on in isolation.    It something I’ve also observed in Local Government where I rubbed up against various transformation programmes.  As with a lot of things you see in the corporate context none of the people I encountered really seemed to believe that this is how change happens but still the project plans for written and the programme rolled forward – with the unsurprising result that things were delivered with very little real change resulting.  Its a bit like laminating your corporate values and then expecting people to adopt them.  Nothing which really lives within an organisation is ever improved by the ossification of  lamination.

Contrast this with the world of social action and system change where cultural and behavioural change is a foundational requirement and the people are the change rather than a unit of resource that needs to be managed.  In this world the outcome is negotiated through different methods of decision making which range from the highly participative approaches of co-production to the less direct approaches of more deliberative or representative democracy.

But the truth when you are trying to ‘get a thing done’ in either context lies between these two poles.  You need the intentionality of the corporate world along with the sense of agency and self-efficacy which is core to the world of social change and participation.  As the networked society blurs our organisational boundaries how can that external world help us reimagine how we think about change?

How do we frame change?  And as a result change frame?

Our organisational norms are still largely formed within the framework of the age of the industrial society.  The industrial view of change is underpinned by the assumption that you can actually manage change and reinforces an industrial view of the organisational form with workers as obedient cogs in the machine.   We call people resources because at some level we see them as interchangeable units of effort.

But that industrial norm has now moved on and we now should instead be taking as a starting point the concept of a networked view of the organisation – of the world – which sees primarily a network of people with different power and skills trying to get something done.  In making networks central to our thinking we have to consider systems not structures in order to make change happen. 

Niels Pflaeling (who I was recently introduced to by my colleague Giulia) has got some interesting things to say about this idea that we have to design organisations with the reality of social and networked power as a given (read more here  – though I take the term ‘organisational physics with a pinch of salt) and there is also the whole world of  corporate democratic thinking which ranges from the orthodoxy of Holocracy by Brian Robertson to the inspirational ‘Reinventing organisations” by Laloux which I defy anyone to read without wanting to go teal.  This HBR article on ‘Beyond the Holocracy hype” provides a really valuable critique and perspective on these different self-managing team models.  These approaches might all lean into the effects of the changing epoch were social value and purpose are measurably important to our new generation of workers (this Deloitte report gives a good overview of this) but ultimately they are framed by the industrial artefact of the market.

In the context of the market the boundaries are set by shareholders and regulators who are at best 3 steps removed from the people on whose behalf they are regulating.   This article by Zeynep Tufekci beautifully explains the dilemma we find ourselves in when we try and operate our democracy and public sphere within the context of the market.  Have a look at what Marianna Mazzucato is saying about the social effects of the marketor Kate Raworth’s brilliant vision of Doughnut economics to get a sense of different ways to envisage the exchange of value.  This new economic thinking is exciting but its also theoretical (yes – even for me!).  What can we do now? Those of us who have a younger workforce or operate in the space formerly know as digital know that we can’t just keep laminating those change plans and expecting change to happen.  See this by my colleague Anne  and my own views on digital being a broken word  to get under the skin of what I mean by formerly.

In a networked world the boundaries of your organisation are porous.  The system that surrounds your organisation sets your operating context and your change plans need to reflect that and use that system to accelerate and support your change. This means that civil society and public sector organisations can to a great extent think beyond the boundaries of the market.  Thinking about organisational change in the context of any institution whose boundaries are civil society and not the market means we can and should look to democratic and social theory in order to think about change.  We can think as system thinkers.

But I want to work from a smaller canvas – what does this mean within the context of those organisational boundaries?  How can you apply system change thinking to organisational change?  And how does that provide a springboard for change in the wider system?

Even the most silo’d organisation is networked

Organisations have for a long time realised that they exist with formal and informal structures in parallel and where it works in harmony.  Working with the NHS it was staggering to observe how much actually gets down via the informal networks which make a broken system function (just).  If you think about it even in the most formal of environments there is always the person who knows everyone or the people you go to get a sense of the current mood.  There is a subtle but significant effect that we can see of the network society infiltrating those industrial constructs however that tips the balance between formal and informal structures.  This is perhaps made most obvious where you have a millennial or ‘digital’ workforce which expects and indeed demands more autonomy and less structural constraint but as we consider the increasingly porous nature of organisational boundaries in terms of our relationship with our audience we can see that our networks are at least as important as the structures by which we organise ourselves.

The work that Inlogov did on 21st Century Public Servant pinpointed and described a number of these new roles and while the research team focused on public services there is a lot that other sectors can learn from this with ‘networker’ and ‘resource weaver’ both being the kinds of new roles which are emerging but which we don’t yet know how to organisationally design for.   The porous nature of organisational boundaries for these new roles is central to the thinking – the 21st Century Public Servant needs to operate in a network which crosses boundaries and connects internal and external networks.

By accepting that organisations are made up of formal and informal networks we have opened to the door to thinking about the organisation as a system and not simply as a structure.

Networks vs or with hierarchies?

But this talk of networks superseding structures doesn’t sit quite right within an organisational context and also doesn’t reflect how sustainable change gets made.  Castells, in networks of outrage and hope, talks about how networked protest can bring waves of change but that they sweep in like a tide and when they subside often leaving the structures they temporarily overwhelmed still present and powerful.  In her thoughtful discussion of social movements “Freedom is an endless meeting” Francesca Polletta talks about the need for social movements to grow rituals and structures in order to be sustainable but also in order to grow beyond protest to enact real change.  In more recent literature Zeynep Tfekci has talked about ‘the fragility of  networked protest’ and more than that speaks of the difficulties of considering commercial platforms as a alternative for a truly public public sphere.

So this isn’t about networked vs hierarchical power – this is about networked alongside hierarchical power.

Returning to organisational rather global scale this is a common sense shift to make.  You know that there are networks in your organisation – why not actively engage them in a change process instead of running it simply along hierarchal lines?  Why not use the power that you already have in the system to accelerate what you want to do?  Why not use all the assets at your disposal?

One of the tensions within this approach – and the thing that can often make decision makers most anxious – is the need to make sure that in taking networked and hierarchical power into account within the organisation we still have robust governance in place.  We need to make the organisation is still able to act and take decisions and doesn’t get caught between networks and hierarchies in terms of how to get things done.  At an even more granular level of specific pieces of work there is a need to shift to taking decisions in realtime rather than relying on the artificial structure of a big programme governance approach.  I have written previously about the democracy stack as a tool a useful tool for figuring out how to structure decision making.  And this can also be applied with programme as well as organisational thinking.  At programme scale the stack translates to mean:

  • Participatory layer:  The question is highly local and only effects the people in that work package
  • Deliberative layer:  the question is system wide and actually requires tradeoffs between work packages 
  • Representative layer:  the question is global and requires a change to the programme context

In the original article I talked about how “Each layer in the democracy stack is expert in different aspects of the system, bound together with both the social networks which operate between these layers but also the flow of information – its about the right decision being taken in the right way and with the right information’.   This is about using networked and hierarchical power alongside each other to make things happen.  

Can you really manage change?

So where does that leave us?  It pretty much blows a whole in the idea that you can control a change programme without engaging the network but it does suggest that you need some structure in the system in place which will help you shape it and turn your planned communications into more of a conversation both between the organisation and the networked individual but importantly between those networked individuals themselves.

It reflects the art rather than the science of any large change programme and the fact that successful and sustainable change is negotiated and evolved and not imposed.  

Tech for good?

Lets talk briefly about the technology  – itself an actor in the system.  The technology you chose also influences change and also affects the agency of the people that are participating in that change.  Closed systems amplify closed behaviours and if you have to ask permission for a collaboration space you are probably unlikely to feel encouraged to collaborate.  

A beautifully crafted front end can conceal a myriad of small assumptions and nudges which actually lead us right back to people being resources again.  The industrial mindset is still very present while companies are seeing the value of customers being the sum of their data parts.  The literate about the unconscious bias which is embedded in technology is really clear.  Read Cathy O’Neill on Weapons of Math Destruction to get a flavour of what this means.  We need to pay attention to this stuff otherwise our plans to change are being sabotaged before we can bring them to life.

In the communication space its always wise to remember the many small nudges that social platforms give us as well as the ‘corporate’ design assumptions which are built into may enterprise platforms which emphasise the need for security and control.  Commercial or technical considerations mean that often we have to accept the compromises that those elegant UIs demand and I am too much of a pragmatist to say we should do otherwise.  But we have to be mindful of the implicit contract we are signing up to and the design assumptions as are adopting when we use these things – we need to understand them so if necessary we can mitigate them.  It helps to shift your thinking from being about technology to focusing on infrastructure – what are the internal operating conditions that can be created around your technology.

A good example of this would be to think about the benefits and challenges of making sure that you have an online space that will support and make visible your networks.  Without that visibility its difficult to make sure that your formal and informal networks are complementary and not at odds.  However transparency is about behaviours and not just about technology and so we need to think about the social as well as technical infrastructure that makes this possible.  Networks – especially online networks – can become insular and also suffer from something called ‘group polarisation’ where they basically turn into the most extreme version of themselves because they start reinforcing their own views rather than being open to influence and other ideas from outside.  Within an organisational context you will experience this as cliques and most of us will have felt how negative these can be.  Taking a network online and making doesn’t change this behaviour (or remove the ability to create more positive safe spaces where groups can reinforce and support each other) but it can give you a good sense of the health of a system and turn that informal network into something that can work with rather than against your formal structures.

There is a huge caveat on that last point and one which also links to the different layers of the democracy stack – to make formal/informal networks work together you need all of those layers to both appreciate that both exist, add value and appreciate their respective strengths.   And that is the hard edge where theory meets practice.

Yes but what are you actually going to do?

How do you take the theory and turn it into practice?  The first step is to reflect on the degree to which this is theory – the argument I have made here is created from building blocks that already exist in many organisations;  the agile teams wanting to do more, the informal networks making the system more effective and the blurring of organisational boundaries to work more effectively with the system that contains that organisation.

At the risk of introducing another “-ism” late in the day a further fundamental shift the 21st Century organisation needs to make it towards asset based thinking.  Asset based thinking has two different lineages; one from community development and one from social work practice.  Its not relevant to discuss the nuances of the differences here but what is central and common across the two arenas is the paradigm shift from seeing your audience as in deficit and needing help to them being an asset and able to contribute to solutions.  That mind flip is essential if we are going to move from our people being resources – those rearrangeable units of industrial effort – to being networked individuals with agency and the ability to self-organise with the organisational system and so it can be helpful to understand more about some of the practitioners who are working hard to make that change and some of the issues that they have encountered with respect to professional protectionism and a lack of faith in the client (or in our technology world user).  Remarkable – not trusting the end user – who could possibly imagine that?  Or does it sound familiar?

If we take that asset based view of our organisations then we start to see those building blocks of potential but we also see where they are disconnected and working at odds with each other.  Its then that we can start to really use systems thinking to help us unlock change within the organisation.  

System change relies on the idea that multiple system actors, with different types of power and influence act with common purpose in order to make change happen.  The system changers system compass curated by the point people is an elegant introduction to the system change world and something its worth losing yourself in for a bit (you’ll see what I mean when you look at it).

A new model for organisational change

Organisational change programmes are often broken down into the ‘golden triangle’ of people, process and technology (its a foundation of ITIL for example).  Its a helpful way of ‘eating the elephant’ when you are trying to get a big programme up and running but its also the reason why we end up putting change into a single workstream and thinking it can happen in isolation.  I want to suggest an update to that model, one which better reflects a networked rather than an industrial world.

  • Don’t think people think networks:  Quite apart from the ‘wrongness’ of a model that thinks of people as units of resource you are fighting a losing battle against the huge shifts in our communication preferences and information exchange if you think you can effectively broadcast change messages without using the amplification effect that networks provide.  But this effect is not a passive one – your plans for change will be amplified with a point of view from that network.  Far better to lean into the networks that exist and collaborate with them to coproduce change.
  • Replace process with purpose:  We should be constantly iterating and improving our processes in order to pursue our purpose.  Its the purpose that matters.  So instead of creating programmes that codify the process at the start and then pursue this to the exclusion of a constantly changing context why not organise around the process?
  • Update technology with infrastructure:  Simply talking about the technology is not enough – technology is just one part of the infrastructure that enables an organisation to get things done and to look at in isolation is just too limiting and allows you to get away with changing ‘a thing’ without making the corresponding changes that make that thing usable.

Why don’t we create a change model that reflects how change really happens?


I spent last year looking at transformation and programme management methods and those three buckets of people/process/technology constantly grated on me.  They felt out of touch with how change really happens and also an attempt to control something that has to evolve. Those big programme structures have consistently let us down when it comes to adaptive change and load in the huge risk that the world has moved on in the time its taken you to deliver the change you designed at a single point in time.  They also fail to really take advantage of the massive energy and opportunity that is represented by networks in the organisation or the acknowledge the fact that organisations operate within the context of constantly adapting systems and in fact are more helpfully viewed as systems themselves and not as static constructs.  We no longer work within the industrial machine.

But what these approaches do offer is structure and discipline and a way of making sense of complex problems and (relatively) swiftly organising large groups of people who haven’t been given the time to develop as self-managing teams with their own work practices and preferences.  We can’t just through them out without some kind of plan for what we would do instead.  Blending these tools with a more networked way of thinking is central to where I want to take this thinking next.

The world of system change provides a different framing of organisational change and a way of seeing it as part of an organic process and not something that is bolted onto an organisation.  The simple but powerful shift from process to purpose is something that can make a profound difference to how you go about engaging the networks that already exist within your organisation.  Once we acknowledge and bring to fore the networks that make up our organisations and the system they create can we ever really deny that all change is system change? 

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