Discover more from Looking Forward by Stephen Johnston
'Systemcraft' - a playbook for transformational change
LF66 | A primer on systems change provides a concise set of frameworks to help systems innovator succeed
I recently came across an excellent post and report on ‘Systemcraft’, which is an ‘approach for driving transformational change’ by impact-focused consulting company Wasafari. They describe themselves as a ‘professional home for people committed to the lifelong adventure of tackling humanity’s toughest problems’, so well suited to the Looking Forward pages, and their name, which means ‘travellers’ in Swahili also seems apt. I thought I’d create a tl;dr version for your edification and my notes; the following is my summary of the key elements.
What makes a challenge ‘complex’?
No single owner or root cause. This is an issue that is bigger than anyone company and there is no single underlying root cause.
Constant change. There is a process of constant change - the problem today is different than it was yesterday.
The system is working for someone. There are enough vested interests and the status quo to make a change difficult.
What mindset shifts are needed for systems change?
Four key mindsets shifts are needed:
Work collectively. This is probably the most important mindset that underlies most of this work. Understanding that collaboration is not just preferable but necessary to solve these ‘wicked’ problems.
Experiment and iterate. There’s no perfect solution – progress will come from a series of experiments that deliver learning. These need to be repeated and built on. The RSA sums this up as - “think like a system and act as an entrepreneur”.
Learn as you go. This can be tricky for leaders who have to change course on the go and will need to change their mental models, and is more of a ‘servant leader’ model than a ‘full speed ahead’ approach.
Recognise and rebalance power. The reason systems are stuck is in part due to power imbalances that privilege certain groups. This requires an exercise in self reflection - who has what kind of power. ‘Innocent’ power imbalances can be seen as the tragedy of the commons - people just doing what they think is best, but it results in suboptimal outcomes for all. There’s also more structural power (unspoken but ubiquitous such as racism and ageism), institutional power (such as monopolies and country size), as well as informal power (eg family dynamics) and obvious power abuses. Recognising and shifting these will be a key factor in the success of any systems change effort.
How do we assess the current state of the landscape?
There needs to be a review of the current state as is, before thinking about solutions. The Systemcraft model offers a simple way to ‘map’ the current landscape using four questions:
Actors: Who are the main actors - individuals, organisations and stakeholder types that influence and define the system?
Drivers: What are the underlying root causes of the issue?
Emergence: What are the emerging dynamics that are changing the systems?
Purpose: Who is the current system working for, and why?
A framework for action
The paper describes five ‘dimensions for action’. These are activities to build collective and adaptive capacity, but not necessarily in any specific order.
Organise for collaboration. This involves bringing in a diversity of stakeholders - not everyone, but a critical mass of them, and ensuring the door is open for others. Coordination is required to ensure information is shared and often informal networks will be part of this. Overtime the group will be able to expand its mandate for change - starting off tackling small issues, and earning credibility to attack the bigger ones.
Set the direction. This is an exercise is setting the North Star - what galvanizing mission can align these disparate stakeholders? There’s an inherent paradox of a bold vision that needs to be combined with concrete short term acheivable actions. The plan needs to be changeable as it meets with reality and it needs to recognize that it needs to address the self-interest of the participants to have any chance of success.
Make it matter. This is about building an appealing future that resonates with hearts and minds. It’s about creating narratives that allow people to see why a topic is relevant to them, and to see themselves in a better future. One of the challenges with climate change has been its abstractness - other places, likely in the future. Yet the narrative changed when Greta Thunberg became a compelling storyteller that young people could relate to, and moral outrage replaced dry statistics.
Change the incentives. As noted above, a system is often working well for a subset of people - recognising who benefits from the status quo is important, before starting to design new incentives. There are many power dynamics in place that impact incentives: “Money, power, culture, history, habit, beliefs, values, what our friends and neighbours do, what feels ‘normal’, are just some of the dynamics that inform our choices”. Choice architecture and behavior change theories will be useful, as will new technologies. Feedback loops can play a role, for example educating girls can reduce family sizes which provides more resources in the families for educating girls.
Harness collective intelligence. Building a way to ensure that the diverse participants share their perspectives to build a common collective intelligence will be important. Nobody is likely to have information about all aspects of the system, and there will be a need to ensure that the mantra ‘knowledge is power’ doesn’t limit desire for information sharing and collaboration, in favor of the common good. Building an minimum viable product to get information exchange happening will need to be followed by iteration and evolution once it’s clear what works and what doesnt.
If you’ve got this far you’re probably excited about starting to think how these frameworks, in particular the action steps, can apply to address some of the sticky challenges we’re working on, for example with systems change to improve healthy aging and longevity.
Would be good to do a real time case study in a location using elements of the above to see how relevant this model is. Look for future discussions of its applicability and feedback, as I take its advice to heart and iterate and evolve the process itself.