Leading systems change: Three key lessons

Published: 9 February 2023

Photo by Deva Darshan via Unsplash
How do you make systems change happen in practice? 

Systems change is a term used to describe the process of tackling entrenched problems to achieve sustainable results. It can involve reforming policies, funding, strategy, culture, mindsets, relationships and more to create the deep shifts sometimes needed to generate better outcomes.

We’ve been thinking a lot about systems leadership’ and the different forms it can take – from lived experience voices changing the way we think about issues to those in senior leadership roles, role modelling new approaches. One way to embed system leadership into a movement for change is to create a specific systems change lead’ role. It’s an approach we’ve explored in our work as learning partner on Changing Futures, a £64m programme set up by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to support adults experiencing multiple disadvantage. 

We’ve been supporting 15 local areas across the country with this. Although not every area has created such a role, many are experimenting with what it might look like, the responsibilities and duties it could entail, and how to equip an incoming systems change lead with the right tools. 

As we move into the second half of the programme and consider what next’, we are reflecting on a few things, namely: what puts the wind in the sails of a systems change lead? Is establishing such a role an effective way to drive change? And is doing so a necessary ingredient of systems change? 

We don’t have all the answers, and are still learning as we go, but offer three initial reflections here.

A relational approach to risk taking is key to driving change

Many of the systems change leads we’ve worked with on Changing Futures have talked about both the importance of taking risks, and of getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ in change work; it’s hard to create new outcomes if you’re working in the same old ways. But taking risks, being bold, and critically examining what’s going wrong and how you might be contributing to it all require a degree of psychological safety. You have to trust that those pushing you to work differently understand why the status quo looks the way it does, trust that they have your best interests at heart, and trust that their vision of the future – the changed system they’re trying to create – is one you believe in too. 

A systems change lead must be able to speak candidly, provoke, and challenge. It might take time for a new lead to build the necessary trust and relationships to play this role effectively, especially if they’re new to the organisation. As such it’s worth thinking about either an internal hire, or a thoughtful orientation to the role and the local ecosystem for external hires.

Decision making must involve systems change leads

Systems change leads can’t create change in isolation; they need the ear of many influential local leaders, and synergy with a range of other activities happening in a local ecosystem. We’ve learnt that it’s important for systems change leads to be in the room where big decisions are made about the strategic direction of the programme, and where leaders come together to set local agendas. It’s also important for them to work closely with programme implementations leads, and be a trusted part of the leadership team, so that different workstreams are aligned with systems change goals. 

Where the programme is generating a lot of learning (or running an evaluation), it’s important for systems change leads to be closely plugged into this work, to ensure that change activities are accounting for new insights, and aligned with what evaluators are learning.

While it’s not always feasible or practical to have a lead in post from the very early stages of a new programme, the more the systems change lead is able to own the systems change strategy, the easier it will be for them to drive and implement it going forward. 

Some systems change leads have found that in the absence of a systems change lens’ on initial plans, the scale of investment needed to shift behaviours and mindsets hasn’t aligned with the budget available for that sort of activity. As one of the Changing Futures systems change leads explains, if you’re trying to create change through reforming rules or infrastructure – e.g. reducing energy use by swapping to smart lighting – you don’t need to invest in behaviour change. But if you’re trying to create change that requires new beliefs, new attitudes and new behaviour – e.g. expecting people to put their recycling in a different bin – then you will need the scale of resource investment in behaviour change to match the scale of the required change.

Be realistic about how long true and lasting change takes

Delivery deadlines can be the enemy of openness and genuine transformation. Very often, even ambitious and progressive systems change programmes are necessarily subject to shorter than ideal delivery timeframes. At its outset, Changing Futures was intended to be a three-year programme; it has since been extended by up to 12 months. However, we know from experience that systems change can take significantly longer than this. Plymouth’s Alliance contracting model – considered a powerful example of deep systems change around multiple disadvantage – took at least eight years to establish. 

Similarly, a recent Bridgespan study showed that many of the most significant social impact stories of the 20th Century took at least 20 years. The pressure to deliver and demonstrate results within a few short years can narrow the field for creativity and openness and create a we need to get on with it’ mindset. 

Maintaining the space for openness, willingness to fail and learn, and the space for incremental changes is vital to change; systems change leads should be given the space to go slowly.

What to find out more?

As experts in changing systems at scale we’d love to talk about how we can help your organisation or project.

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