Today we face challenges so complex that no individual or organisation can solve them alone… climate change, violent extremism, biodiversity loss, racism and a global pandemic. These challenges need us to come together in new ways to change the underlying systems that create them. But what does that mean in reality? What should we actually do? How do we turn system thinking into system doing?
Systemcraft is Wasafiri’s framework to help leaders and organisations identify their best next steps in tackling complex issues. It’s hewn from a decade of experience working on the front lines of some of the world’s toughest problems and draws from a broad body of research. This revised edition incorporates our most recent thinking on how to drive change at scale, and offers practical approaches to help leaders answer ‘so what do I do next?”.
Why, despite our best efforts do some problems remain stuck?
This is not because our change models are wrong. It is because the majority of them have not been created to deal with problems that are complex in nature. Nor have they been built to create system-level change. Complex problems have four key characteristics and it is these that make them resistant to traditional change approaches. Specifically;
- They have no single owner– so no one person or institution (however brilliant) can make change alone. Collective action is the only thing that will work.
- No single root cause – so there are no silver bullet or one-off solutions; rather multiple changes are needed to target multiple causes
- They are dynamic – they keep adapting and changing, and so our efforts to work with them need to be equally adaptive.
- They are produced by systems that are working – for some people somewhere at least some of the time. And for this reason there will be resistance to change. This requires us to ask ‘who is the current state working for?’
These characteristics means complex problems rarely present themselves in obvious or intuitive ways. Therefore, if we leap to action then we often start working on the wrong things, in the wrong ways. So if we want to create lasting and real change in the face of complex problems, then we need to deeply understand these problems, and not just work on the most obvious symptoms or the quickest wins.
What do you do when faced by an issue so complex you don’t even know where to start?
- Don’t work on the problem, work on the system that creates it. For example, if we want to reduce rough sleeping in a city, we could just spend a lot of money on hotel rooms (as happened in London in the pandemic). But on its own this won’t change any of the issues that lead to people sleeping rough. We need to also work on issues such as the coordination between heath care and housing providers, or the timelines within the social security system, or the way collateral works in the rental market – or any number of other issues. It is only when we shift these underlying conditions that we will change the system that results in people sleeping rough on the streets.
- Be pragmatic; and keep trying. The work of system change requires us to start where we are, with what we have. Traditional linear approaches to change often imply that there is a right place to start – that there is a single root cause that needs changing first. But systems are the result of many root causes, and what is possible to change is changing all the time. For example, Greta Thunberg did not initiate climate protests in schools. The first one had happened during the Paris COP in 2015 almost three years earlier – same action, different impact. So the reality of what is possible and what will have impact is shifting all the time and can’t easily be predicted. This means we need to be ready to act on what we can, when we can, and with what we have.
- Work collectively. Tackling complex problems is no place for would-be lone heroes. If you want to do this work then you need to be ready to work with others both inside and outside your organisation. And that means being ready to make compromises, to work across diverse agendas, navigate the inevitable tensions and dilemmas, and to share the credit.
- Learn as you go. In a ‘complex adaptive system’ it simply isn’t possible to know how all the parts connect or to predict exactly how they influence one another. For this reason we need to be prepared to move forward with well informed ‘guesses’ about what might happen, try things out, adapt quickly and change our interventions as we learn more about both the system and our attempts to shift it.
So what do I do next?
Systemcraft offers five dimensions for action. These are the things we can work on when we seek to create system-level change; and answer the perennial question, ‘What should I do next? These dimensions don’t have a specific order; what is possible and what is salient will be different in different contexts. Nor do they have a ‘done’ state – rather they are the dimensions that together define and influence the ‘collective and adaptive capacity’ of a system, that is, the ability of a system to adapt and work through conflicting interests.
Organise for collaboration – Change is collective. Build coalitions and enhance the formal and informal architecture to enable different actors to coordinate effort
Collective action requires creating the social wiring that enables the sharing of ongoing effort. This is the hard work of engaging stakeholders who hold diverse views, and building the forums with the resources, tempo, mandate, infrastructure to ensure they can actually work effectively together and in an enduring way. This is not to say all stakeholders can or will engage – indeed there will always be vested interests who resist change. But system change requires creating structures and relationship that draw stakeholders together and enable them to better know one another. Questions to unlock new thinking would include: “To what extent do stakeholders understand who else is part of the issue. Are there structures and forums in place to enable stakeholders to meaningfully work on these issues together?”
Set the direction – Set ambitions, align goals, create milestones, mobilise resources. Create enough clarity to step forward
There is a paradox in system change work. We need to hold big ambitions, such as transforming the African food system, whilst taking action in the here and now. Many well-intentioned collaborations drift apart, not for lack of ambition, but for lack of specific time-bound goals which match the time, resources and collaborators available. Such goals may initially appear modest, for example; initiating an intra-organisational conversation about the incomes of smallholder farmers in the supply chain. As things accelerate, look for goals bold enough to grab attention and attract resources: a glitzy prize to celebrate the best young agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa; setting a national deadline for achieving net zero carbon emissions; or reducing a city’s water consumption to 50 litres per person. Effective goals build the momentum for change, enhance collaboration and deliver real time value to collaborators. The key, though, is not to confuse the goals along the way with the bigger, long-term ambition.
A question to unlock new thinking would be: Do we have a collective, long-term ambition for change with clear goals, targets, and clarity about who will do what and when?
Make it matter Forge an inclusive movement championing the transformation; ensure relentless storytelling that connects with people’s concerns and lived realities.
Change happens when we want something better than we have. There needs to be an evocative vision of a better future, something to move toward that taps into the concerns, agendas and values of those who are going to need to do the changing. For example, there has been a vast amount of work done to tackle climate change, but concepts such as 1.5 degrees remain fairly abstract for most of us, and much of the rationale for change is driven (understandably) by fear. And yet the Covid pandemic has thrown us into a lower-carbon way of life, one with improved air quality, and safer roads to walk and cycle on. This has unwittingly presented a window of opportunity to create a compelling and positive story about what might lie on the other side of the ‘valley of sacrifice’. A question to unlock new thinking would be: “Is there a galvanizing story for change and is it being told by diverse, compelling storytellers?”
Change the incentives – Create mutually reinforcing interventions that change structural and informal incentives, and influence behaviours.
Complex problems are driven by coherent decision making. It is essential to understand what beneficial outcomes the current state produces and for whom. For example, overfishing in Lake Victoria is driven not by a failure to understand the problem, but a need (and desire) to generate incomes. Until fishing communities have other ways to feed themselves and to generate an income, fishing will continue. Too often change efforts fail because they don’t recognise or target the incentives that actually drive people’s choices and behaviours. To put this another way, if you want to create change you need to change the dynamics that drive the current state. A question to unlock new thinking might be, “Do we understand the formal and informal incentives at work; how do we intervene to shift these?”
Harness collective intelligence – Enable learning about how the system is functioning and changing. Ensure information flows through the whole system and reduce asymmetries of knowledge and information.
Knowledge is power, and information holds systems together. Efforts to change systems must therefore challenge asymmetries in how information flows – who from and who to; who is enabled to be a producer and who is allowed to be a consumer of what knowledge. System change also demands that we learn as we go, updating our knowledge of the system we seek to change. And this learning must serve the change makers and not just the change funders. It must be constructed from different, diverse vantage points and enable all to to better understand, and so act upon, the system of which they are part.. A question to unlock new thinking would be, “How well do existing learning mechanisms reach, include and serve those that need to act for change? How inclusive are the existing flows of information and learning?”
Systemcraft is designed to help anyone who wants to tackle a complex problem answer “so what do I do next?” By seeking to understand the complexity of the issue at hand we get beyond the symptoms. By targeting the five dimensions we avoid superficial and often counterproductive solutions. And by being pragmatic, starting where we are, working with others and learning as we go, we move from thinking about system change to doing system change.
For a more comprehensive explanation of Systemcraft as well as examples of how we’ve used it in practice, please download the full primer here. If you are curious to know more about how Wasafiri works with clients to drive transformational system change please get in touch here firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Question borrowed from David Storth ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’
 Systems thinkers refers to this as a systems purpose. This is not necessarily a desired purpose – but rather the outcomes that the current state is structured to achieve (be that desired or not).