The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking Part II: Rules for Innovators Leveraging Bigger Change

This is the second part of a blog series on systems thinking. In part I, Realizing the ultimate impact of community-based innovations,” I introduced the theory and core elements of systems thinking.

In Part II let’s begin with two questions: what can individuals and organizations do to be part of systemic change? And how can powerful institutions like governments be more part of the solution than the problem?

In Systems Innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggests two sets of answers.  The first: it is essential to ground individual change actions within the context of the “broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.” For Mulgan “the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. Realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of leverage. If you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.”

The second: recognize and leverage the essential role of what I call the missing middle or what Mulgan calls intermediaries. In order to succeed, “the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. In retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies.”

The roles played by intermediaries can include: orchestrating advocacy campaigns; engaging critical stakeholders; demonstrating alternatives; and facilitating the required networks into power structures and changemaking communities. Some of these roles resemble those of “backbone” organizations in collective impact initiatives. Mulgan lays out a valuable chart for seeing the range of roles and their goals:

goal-actions_geoff

Joined-Up Innovation, Geoff Mulgan p. 21

Building the Enabling Systems-oriented Ecosystem

What would be elements of an ecosystem building approach for systems innovation that a government should focus on? Social Innovation Europe suggests seven:

1.    Developing a common vision around the need and potential for systems change
2.    Supporting greater experimentation
3.    Expanding rapid learning through open innovation platforms, greater transparency, and much more cross-sector collaboration
4.    Expanding incubation support systems and platforms to enable systems innovations
5.    Targeting capacity building focused on critical competencies
6.    Developing enabling conditions through funding instruments, regulation and legislation
7.    Growing networks connecting key stakeholders in order to spread and disseminate innovative practice and generally enable knowledge mobilization.

How imminent is a heightened focus on systems change? What conditions will prevail to shift us in that direction? Charles Leadbeater, in his essay in Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series, says there are four main ingredients to the systems shifting process (that he calls “regime change”):

1.    Failure Stacks Up – The multiplying failures and frustrations with the current system
2.    Landscape Shifts – The landscape of the current regime shifts so much that it is left at odds with the world
3.    Alternatives Accumulate – Real alternatives start to grow, multiply in overlapping fashion
4.    New Technology Offers Accelerated Impact – “These new approaches are energized by the application of new technologies, which open up new possibilities for organizations, businesses and consumers. These rising new technologies add to the momentum and excitement for change.”

Alice Casey, from her vantage point in Nesta’s Public Service Innovation Lab, highlights two additional ingredients for people working on systems change at the community level. Her essay in the Discussion Series advocates for:

1.    Structures that value collaboration and that assist people escaping their narrow service silos to think and work together, and
2.   Relationships that enable power sharing by using an asset based approach and drawing on the tools of co-production that “help create collaborative and trusting relationships that give people the risk–friendly space they need to engage and behave in different ways.”

Systems Thinking Into the Water Supply

How do you see the issues you care about through a systems thinking lens? Does systems thinking have implications for how you imagine deepening your impact over the next decade? One of Canada’s social strategists extraordinaire, Al Etmanski, is fond of saying that we need to get “social innovation into the water supply”. For many years now he has applied his talents at the systems tilting end of the social innovation spectrum. How do we take Al’s lead to expand that essential “systems think and do”?

Related Links:

  • The indispensable desktop resource on systems thinking is the short book by Donnella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008). Donnella was a co-author of the 1972 watershed book Limits to Growth that was a catalyst for recognizing earth as a system with finite limits.
  • The SiG Knowledge Hub is replete with useful content including the sections on Systems Thinking (Dip into Systems Thinking, Dive in Systems Thinking)
  • The Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary Oct 2 – 4, features an extensive line-up of systems thinkers and social innovators.
  • Nesta’s robust website contains two excellent 2013 PDFs on systems thinking: Systems Innovation and Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series. The latter carries a contribution by Canadian Daniel Miller a St. John’s, NL-based independent researcher who has a web site Systemnovation dedicated to systems thinking.
  • The field of social innovation, design or change labs is developing across Canada. It offers a growing set of basic tools to assist organizations, businesses and governments in initiating practical multi-stakeholder processes to develop, prototype and scale systems-shifting innovations. SiG has just published a new map to those resources.

Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.

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Tim Draimin About Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin is the Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG)

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