Some thoughts on systems change

2-systems-change-101“The system is broken.”
“The system fails to meet people’s needs.”
“We need to change the system.”

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. Every self-respecting activist and change maker knows this narrative; partially, because it has a lot of truth in it. Problems appear when the conversation on systems change stops here: Some will throw their hands in despair because the system’s just too big and too powerful – and others will start fighting the system in opposition, always dreaming of overthrowing it. Unfortunately, both strategies are bound to fail in their ambition to make an impact.

How can we dare to make a difference?

In order to change systems (or ‘the system’), we need to understand how they work. Systems thinking teaches us that we can understand systems on three levels:

  1. We can observe the whole and its behaviours, and make guesses about its boundaries and purpose. This is what we often talk about when we say that the system is broken.
  2. We can observe its parts – the people and institutions that participate in it. What drives them? In what way are we part of the system?
  3. We can observe relationships and flows (of resources, money, information). What dynamics contribute to the stability of the system? What is changing over time?

Drawing the system with a group often helps to create a shared understanding as we learn to build the big picture from individual viewpoints. There’s no right way to do this – any map is by definition incomplete. But it can serve us as a temporary guidepost.

You’ll then be able to have a conversation about the best courses of action. Ideally, you can identify 2-3 acupressure points where a small intervention might result in big systems change (and even kick off a complete transformation to a new equilibrium). For inspiration, check out Dana Meadows’ essay “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”.

The challenge

Next time you find yourself in a conversation about broken systems, reclaim your power and agency by asking “who does what that causes these symptoms?”.

Because anything else would just be lazy – and bound to fail.

Some thoughts on systems change

One thought on “Some thoughts on systems change

  • 8 October 2014 at 15:16

    Hi Wiebke, this post just comes in time! Cause I am currently making up my mind how to make an impact. The thought of overthrowing sounds wonderful. But what comes next? My experience from watching whats happening is, that next after overthrowing comes Chaos. Long grown structures often cannot be replaced in a short period of time. So this has to be planned and has to grow.
    I love the suggestion to find angle points where small actions can make a deep impact. Thank you for the wonderful link to Dana Meadows essay!


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