The key to systems change
LF28 | Changing systems requires changing the relationships between people
Navigating Australia’s systems change agitators
I’m enjoying finding my ‘tribe’ in Australia - impact-focused, system-thinking zealots for a better world.
In the past few weeks I’ve had mind-expanding conversations with folks such as Pete Cohen, Kate Stewart, Rachel Slattery, Chris Gray, Alex Hannant, Kai Lofgren, Josie Gibson, and Cass Spong, among others.
Josie, Pete and Cass in particular have been patient guides and mentors in my education around systems thinking, and am finding myself focusing more on the people and their relationships, than more ‘mechanistic’ aspects such as breakthrough tech.
Transforming systems by transforming the relationships between people
Our policy makers and prevailing world view seems to operate on the basis that we’re all machines - whether it’s the economy, an organization, or even employes. Systems are (still) mostly run by frail humans, each complex in their own way, especially so when interacting together en masse.
Cass introduced me to the Berkana two-loop systems change model which is a powerful way to showcase systems change for a number of reasons, in particular because it describes the roles needed to change a system.
This approach reminds us we’re operating in a complex, emergent system - whether at the level of the individual, the family, the organization or a mission. Systems are born, grow, die and decay, and new systems emerge. Continuing the status quo forever will not happen, and this is particularly the case with aging, where the ‘system of care’ is blowing up and can’t possibly continue.
Respecting the old while ushering in the new
The ‘old’ system is about care in institutions, whereas a new one is about care in the community - broadly defined. The old model is expensive, rigid and not personalized, and the new model will be centered around the individual.
Innovations as seeds of a new system
This model suggests that the new system starts with innovations that emerge as disconnected ‘weak signals’ of new ideas, developed by people who can see a better way. However, they’re often sporadic, understaffed and -scaled and many will fail. Here innovations could be startups but could also be new ways to think, new regulations and new business models.
Six necessary roles for transition
In order to transition a system, we need more than a few pointy-headed researchers with a new idea, or startup CEOs with big ideas and bravura. We need an entire range of Roles, including those who have grown up with the old system and have inside knowledge.
These ‘Stabilizers’ know how things work and can help support transition. However, there is a danger that they’re also bottlenecks, and stand in the way of change. So they need to be engaged with respectfully.
Pioneers are those with ideas - often frustrated by the current model, and need support from Midwives, who shine a light on their work and Benefactors, who invest and tactically support the growth of new ideas (I added Benefactors as this felt missing from the original model).
Hospice workers are those who work with the Stabilizers and manage the transition - helping the old system ‘grieve’ (yes, emotion is going to be a factor). And finally Wave-riders are the bridge builders who can smoothly navigate between the old and new systems, building bridges and helping the late adopters transition.
Am increasingly convinced that all change is people change, and so a key expertise needed for any change initiative is behaviour change.
To transform the system we need to transform the relationships among people who shape the system
As a recap, this model suggests we’re operating in a dynamic system not a machine. Systems grow, decay and renew, constantly. Much of what made the old system can be re-used in the new - the ‘compost’ if you like. There is work to be done to steward transition and minimize pain of transition.
It’s worth bearing in mind that many of the new emerging innovations will fail, and that’s ok, as long as leanrings are shared. The innovations need coordination and support. The roles above exist in any major change effort, and all roles are valuable. So the question is, who’s playing those roles (people often play multiple roles a day) in your change efforts?
As I explore the systems investing work, this tactical, people-focused exercise feels necessary to help ensure change efforts - however they’re funded - are successful.
I love this post!
There is so much richness in what you are exploring here.
I find the natural metaphors really powerful and I love that you mentioned "compost". Often when we talk about innovative in the usual Silicon Valley way we talk about the need to "kill" underperforming ideas so as to keep testing a broader portfolio. While there is truth in that, I prefer the metaphor of metabolising the "waste" - the ideas that didn't work out, and/or the expired business models, they all have value that should be respectfully stewardess. And they can feed into the next generation of ideas.
I was also introduced by Cass to the Berkana Two Loop model and we facilitated some workshops together based around it.
I consistent observed groups have a resonant, penny drop type moment when they were introduced to the "stabiliser" role. It seems that it is a more positive perspective and framing for people that might otherwise be seen as change resisters.
Really looking forward to more exploration together in this space!