What is systems change?


‘Systems change’ is a term that is used a lot, but often used in ways that mean lots of different things.

What do we mean when we say we are going to help you change or transform the system?

In an effort to answer this seemingly simple question, allow me to offer some definitions first, so we are clear about what we mean by different terms. This may then answer the seemingly innocent and simple question.

Transformation is a particular type of change

Transformation requires revealing and challenging the underlying unconscious assumptions and beliefs that an individual, team, organisation or community may hold. The transformation results because of a new possibility that is seen in the process of noticing these unconscious assumptions or beliefs (in systems thinking they are referred to as mental models.) This usually associated with a re-prioritsation of values.

The mental models may be woven together on a larger scale, and these are paradigms that represent entire frameworks that provide an understanding or worldview about “how the world works”. There are political, professional, scientific and cultural paradigms. A paradigm shift is a more substantial shift and transformation than one or two mental models that are often at the heart of most cultural change initiatives within organisations.

These types of transformations may be the underpinning of an expansion of awareness (or a different stage of human development) too. And so we might say that the transformation is expressed as a new way of being in the world.

The transformation may be a moment of insight within people’s heads and hearts, and occurs quite quickly, but it may take longer to come into reality in the external, tangible world. As people learn how to express the transformed way of being, and the transformation comes into reality, the changes may look like incremental change over a period of time rather than a paradigm shift or transformational change overnight.

‘A system’ means …

A system is simply a set of inter-related elements organised to serve a particular function or to seek a particular goal. But systems ain’t systems!

There are many different schools of systems thinking and different types of systems. Some systems are simple and goal-directed like the thermostat on your air conditioner. Other systems are complex such as living systems where the purpose may be to survive and thrive.

Different systems require different types of thinking.

The thinking employed in simple systems tends to be a logical and linear cause and effect, sequential thinking- sometimes referred to as systematic. A highlight of this type of thinking is a reductionist approach to problem-solving or fixing the system. The approach is to break it into parts, find the problem part, replace it and then the whole system will work again. This the type of thinking an engineer might engage in to ensure an office lift works properly.  As humans, we aim to control these types of systems.

Complex systems or living systems require an appreciation of the whole and the relationships between the parts to effectively intervene and influence them. These are systems which reproduce themselves from their constituent parts and are ‘coupled’ to their environment. You are a living system. And recently it has been widely accepted that social systems such as businesses, organisations of any type, and even society can be thought of living systems.  Note the language: ‘thought of as living systems’ because strictly speaking, they do not meet some of the criteria of a living (autopoietic) system. In particular, they do not have a membrane that separates the living entity, organisation, from the rest of the social system.

Because living systems comprise feedback loops between the parts, which are often not immediately apparent, living systems are examples of non-linear cause and effect (think butterfly effect)- and are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. A living system is always adapting just as you are. And as you adapt, so does the system in which you are immersed. We can not control these systems, our intention should be to learn how to influence living systems. (Enter adaptive leadership frameworks.)

Living systems require the capacity to think and act holistically. When we say ‘systemic change’ in an organisational context we are referring to the whole system; meaning each individual person’s thinking and values, their behaviours and decision-making processes, the collective organisation’s culture (shared values and stories; its meaning-making) and its processes and systems such as HR system, finance system etc. This type of change is transformational, emergent (a term for another day) and takes time.

What is ‘systems change’?

The answer to this simple question depends upon what type of system you are referring to. If you are talking about a process for dealing with invoicing customers, this may refer mostly to a simple system and entail systematic thinking and a reductionist approach.

But as you engage with simple systems, remember that the accounts payable person involved in implementing the new system is a living system!

Want to know more about leading transformation and whole systems change within your organisation? Please feel free to contact me. I am also preparing to run a workshop on this topic for interested people. An expression of interest will help me develop the workshop content to meet your needs.