#SystemsChange part 2: How Do Systems Change?

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
7 min readJan 27, 2022


by Gautam John, Director — Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

We have seen organisations use varied approaches to nudging changes at a systemic level. A common set of questions often asked is an understanding of the failures and why they have persisted, followed by an unpacking of why prior and current efforts have not been adequate. In articulating their pathway to change, they often make visible their assumptions, the actors and incentives implicit in their imagination. We have often seen that it is essential to consider possible unintended consequences (for example, the cascading impact from removing the apex predator in the landscape of Yellowstone) and have a clear sense of what partnerships, relationships and engagements with others are critical in achieving progress to their stated aims. Lastly, we are now seeing the importance of an enabling narrative, storytelling and conscious learning.

This journey involves two key pillars. First, seeing the system, and second, experimenting with change. When experimenting with change, changemakers are looking to find vital high-leverage touchpoints valuable to address. As Eric Berlow says, “We’re discovering in nature that simplicity often lies on the other side of complexity. So for any problem, the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.” It is crucial to let go of detail in complex systemic work to see large-scale patterns as we have learned that detail could often be imaginary and, in some cases, wrong.

Derived From: https://medium.com/thepointpeople/the-how-of-systems-change-37aee8a3baa8

Organisations involved in systemic work often consider the relationship between the individual, system and organisation. Individuals work within organisations that work within systems. At the core, they ask, how do they relate to the problem they are seeing? How do they perceive it at an emotional level, and what is the tangible reality of the situation? With constant reflection and learning from their own perspectives, we have seen that they begin to see their role in systemic change.

Systems thinking help organisations see the bigger picture and appreciate multiple perspectives. A core part of systems thinking is systems mapping, in which organisations zoom out to look at things holistically. This allows them to maintain a view of the connections between things without getting lost in the details from this vantage. A systems map can help demonstrate the many components of a system and their boundaries at a given point in time. Mapping the system helps find the level of interest to focus on an issue and clarify it.

Every actor and institution in a system holds different ideas and opinions about things. Mapping a system allows us to see that there are many different ways to think of agreements and disagreements between people. Sometimes these different views overlap with each other and sometimes they do not. Indeed, creating the space for a collaborative net positive sum debate is vital to co-create progress in systemic work between the different actors and institutions. We have seen the value of a “dialogic process” to move participants from their stated positions to the real unstated intents that often lie below the surface but are vital to reveal such that we may find shared interests.

Derived From: https://medium.com/thepointpeople/the-how-of-systems-change-37aee8a3baa8

Some things can be invisible but still, make an important part of systems. For example, things like organizational culture, policy environment, market mechanisms and legislation can be invisible but play an important part in how systems are structured. Indeed, they may well be the core of the structure of that system. If we want to change how these function, it is important to understand these invisible scaffolds supporting the system. These define how things work in a system — for example, rules, processes, contracts, forms and official ways of doing things. These can be high-value levers for change but are usually invisible and must specifically be looked for. The way we do things is subject to revision, and while they may seem immovable, they can nudge the system’s shift.

A key element when working in a complex system is the necessity of letting go of deterministic approaches where work is structured according to how they see change emerging.

A key element when working in a complex system is the necessity of letting go of deterministic approaches where work is structured according to how they see change emerging. It is critical not to see systems as fixed and immutable and consciously make space for new and different ways to view systems and stay open to plural ideas of change and methods of influencing changes within the system.

We have seen that systemic changes are slow, iterative, and reflective. Complex systems do not get solved. Working with and in complex systems is like creating a healthy lifestyle, to be worked at with adaptation and improvement. Our goal is to achieve system “health” rather than meeting small and focused outcomes.

More recently, we have seen that a process of conscious self-inquiry helps leaders manage their energy and resilience, become more effective team leaders, and develop more meaningful collaborations with other organizations to drive sustained, positive change in the way the ecosystem responds to systemic challenges. Systems leaders connecting with themselves first allows them to themselves as a part of the system and be in service of these more significant questions and issues. The importance of creating “uncommon ground” for “collaborative debate” has been made evident by the high friction of co-creation in systemic approaches — as much, if not more, within leaders and organisations as within the ecosystem.

Systems leaders connecting with themselves first allows them to themselves as a part of the system and be in service of these more significant questions and issues.

Derived From: https://medium.com/thepointpeople/the-how-of-systems-change-37aee8a3baa8

Lastly, we now have greater clarity on the role of movements in systemic social change and how critical they are. Government’s are the natural ally for large scale systemic action since they have both legitimacy and authority. But often, the challenge is with the government itself or its systems; therefore, collaborative work needs to be built from the societal side. In which case, civil society leaders have to *build* leadership without formal authority and create a shared sense of legitimacy. This is why it is so much harder — but when it happens, far more durable and impactful than the government side alone. Also, when building from the sarkaar side, they optimise for “legibility”, so diversity suffers — the “Seeing Like a State” problem.

A crucial element of this and for us to be a whole partner in change is to support leadership in transition. We need to find ways to help leaders explore that space between themselves, their organisations, their ecosystem, and their role in changing and catalysing change. It is, as we see, a lonely journey.

The antidote that James C Scott offers to avoid “Seeing Like a State” when intervening in complex systems is worth recalling: to minimise simplistic legibility (honour diversity), temper ambitious plans with prudence and humility (humble in approach but not modest in ambition), reduce the planner’s ability to impose a plan (emergence rather than log-frames) and increase the power of participants to resist or shape such plans (agency!).

So, how do we create the conditions for systems change to happen? Perhaps we could learn much from unpacking the structures of movements. Not just in terms of what they achieve in the short term, but also their potential to create the long-term relationships and networks necessary for fundamental transformation. Leaders in civil society have a huge role to play in this process by building leadership without formal authority and creating a shared sense of legitimacy. Together, these two factors create a space where people can come together from different backgrounds with different perspectives on an issue and begin trust-based creative co-creation from which systemic shifts can emerge. What are you seeing in your communities?

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