What are the capabilities we need for system change?

With the growing awareness and need to address complex challenges that the world faces we believe we need to rapidly grow the number of people who can think and act systemically, and implement radical change.

To address this challenge we at Forum for the Future want to work with others to help build the field of system change. Our main contribution is the development of an international learning programme that offers access to the best learning experiences, tools and case studies for a community of people building their skills in system change for sustainability.

So what are the skills and capabilities required to change systems?

Through our experience and through working with others who are implementing system change we think there are five core capability areas that will help us develop curriculums, organise learning experiences and curate different tools and approaches.

The five capability areas

  1. Systemic diagnosis — Diagnose complex sustainability challenges using systemic approaches

Sustainability challenges by their very nature are large complex and interconnected. We often approach them through single issue and technical dimensions rather than seeing it as a systemic issue. We need to apply approaches and techniques that helps understand the challenges we are facing to engage people and organisations and find areas for action.

This includes being able to look at these challenges in a holistic way, having a broad understanding of sustainability whilst also using tools such as systems thinking and mapping, futures inquiries and human centre research that help gather and synthesise insights to find opportunities for intervention.

2. Strategy design- Design system change strategies and interventions

A good diagnosis does not always mean a good strategy. We need to use our understanding of the system dynamics to create design principles and models that help us plan and make choices about where and how to intervene.

There are a number of different models we might start from, for example Transitions Theory, social and cultural change, Living systems, that can help lay out ways to think about the process you might use. From these models different theories of change can be created, some bespoke and some processes that have been pulled together for others to use, for example Social Labs and Theory U approaches.

There are a large number of tools and possible interventions that can support system change, we therefore need to find ways to iterate, experiment and evaluate so as to apply the right process to the challenge identified and design interventions that help to create the impact that you are seeking.

3. Innovation for impact — Develop and realise innovative solutions that seek to create scalable and systemic impact

The innovations we need to further the transition to sustainability go beyond technologies, products and services and commercial enterprises to include our mind-sets, values, beliefs, new forms of organisation and collaboration — and in all sorts of combinations that we don’t yet know. We must awaken our imaginations to do the extraordinary and embark on journeys of co-creation and experimentation to figure out answers to the complex challenges we face. By drawing on — and combining — the innovation processes and tools out there, design thinking, design fiction and prototyping, we can make ideas tangible and build the collective agency to bring them to life.

For system change it also requires us to consider how a number of these innovations can combine to forge alternative systems. We need to have the skills to find ways to harness a culture of creativity and combine the direct and indirect impact of our initiatives to leverage change at a scale that is commensurate with the challenge.

4. Collaboration and engagement — seek, initiate, build and facilitate partnerships and coalitions for change

At the heart of systemic change is the assumption that it cannot be achieved alone. A system change agent will be able to facilitate, build partnerships and create coalitions and seek to influence and engagement wider audiences in the change.

This requires skills in empathy, being able to translate across sectors, cultures and perspectives, building relationships and devising and facilitating workshops and events that support the change process. We also need to employ creative communications skills to influence and engage wider audiences in the change. This all needs to be underpinned by strong stakeholder and project management skills. Approaches draw from methods such as communities of practice, deep democracy, collaborative action inquiry and action networks.

5. Leadership and learning — Learn and lead into complex and uncertain future

System change is both complex and uncertain, as we trying to navigate into an unknown future. Underpinning the other capabilities is the need for individual change agents to be able to reflect, learn and continually develop their skills and resolve to implement system change. They need to cultivate personal resilience deal with the demands of the work and be able to act with integrity and purpose. Practitioners also need to be entrepreneurial and be able to work with groups of people in diverse situations, adapting their approach as required.

Effective change agents identify the assumptions and worldviews that are underpinning the choices they are making in the interventions and strategies they choose. This requires them to explore their personal perspective and values and take an open to different ways of seeing and acting in the world.

Clearly these five core capabilities need to be underpinned by core implementation skills like good project management, finance, people management etc. They also need to be deployed in tandem to be effective by individuals or teams.

In the system innovation lab, we feel that these five capability areas are distinctly required for system change. But we want to know what you think? If you had these capabilities would you be an invincible change agent? What else might you want or need? Let us know what you think and we will use these to design and curate the best possible learning experiences as part of the school of system change.

We are hosting a Living Change event exploring these skills and capabilities for innovating systems on Monday 18th July — if you are interested in coming along sign up here.