Systems change in practice: Building a common understanding

Published: 27 October 2019

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash
Harriet Ballantine shares an essential resource for generating those practical conversations that get the ball rolling. 

Systems change” is a phrase we hear more and more frequently. It’s usually used to describe the process of tackling entrenched, creating change that’s felt by lots of people, in a way that feels real and sustainable – not one-off, short-lived or tokenistic. It’s a simple phase to describe what is, in reality, a far-reaching, multi-faceted process. 

So how do you describe what systems change actually means, in practical terms? What does that mean in terms of where you focus?

The problem: Where do we focus?

Earlier this year, I found myself trying to do just that – working as a member of the facilitation team for the Black Thrive partnership in Lambeth. 

To give you some background: B lack Thrive seeks to bring about real change to the experience of black people in Lambeth when it comes to mental health and well-being. We know that the system (no matter how you define it) is not working – most starkly illustrated by the fact that black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people. The reasons for this are historic and far-reaching, and inextricably linked with broader entrenched inequalities and racism in the UK. Therefore the solution will be driven by change across a wide range of people and organisations. Black Thrive is therefore a partnership between local organisations (the NHS, Lambeth Council, the Police, and others) and black communities in Lambeth. 

The approach draws upon the principles of Collective Impact – a model of social change. In essence, we bring together a lot of people and organisations who care deeply about addressing this issue – for professional or personal reasons, sometimes both – to work with one another in a focused way to achieve real, sustained change. 

Moving the conversation forward 

Answering the question of where do we focus” requires a focused approach too. I found that every time I broached this question with partners I had two issues. Firstly, I’d get a slightly different answer depending on where they sat within this complex system. This was fine and to be expected – but how to capture that? Secondly, some people are more comfortable with these big, ambiguous questions than others, and we needed everyone to be able to engage in these discussions. We needed a framework. 

When you’re in the midst of a new partnership, it can be tempting to think no one has done this before – but, of course, often someone has. I found the FSG paper Waters of System Change was just what Black Thrive needed to inch our conversation forward.

The paper does three helpful things: 

  1. Simply defines systems change as shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place”.
  2. Presents a framework that allows you to identify what conditions’ are holding your problem in place helping to disentangle the system you’re trying to change.
  3. In doing (1) and (2), it makes clear the more practical aspects of what needs to change – allowing partners to create tangible plans in response.

How does the framework help?

Put simply, the framework provides six broad categories that are typical reasons for tricky problems staying the way they are. Thinking about the big problem you’re trying to solve in this way can help because it ensures you’re thinking about it from lots of different angles. It’s also a good exercise to conduct with a broad set of stakeholders, including those directly affected by the issues. (On the FSG website you can find more resources to help facilitate this conversation.)

The next step is to consider what strategies you can use, in partnership with others, to shift some of these conditions. It’s helpful to identify who is responsible for each strategy within your system, so there’s proper ownership and accountability.

When we did this with Black Thrive stakeholders, we ended up with a long list of tangible strategies, some of which we could undertake as a partnership. It also helped us identify the things we couldn’t change – for example, cuts to local authority budgets.

Doing this exercise helped us move from the blue sky’ thinking to something much more immediate and real. And that’s incredibly motivating for a group of people working together in this way. 

If you want to apply this approach in your organisation, remember that the framework is designed to divide up a large social issue – not make it smaller. You can’t lose sight of the change you’re actually looking to make nor the people for whom it needs to change.

Find out more about Black Thrive 

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