Systems Change and Leading in the Land of Complexity

Photo credit: Deva Darshan (via Unsplash)

In this three-part series I share some of the thinking that emerged from a piece of research by me and my team at the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) — big shoutouts to my colleagues Sara Farley, Renee Vuillaume, and Glen Burnett! The aim of this research is to further our understanding of how systems change, and the role that leadership can play in catalyzing that change. You can read the final output of the project here. Hope you enjoy!

The financial system. The justice system. The education system. The healthcare system. The “insert system here” system.

Go into any coffee shop in my neighborhood, Shaw, here in Washington, DC — or any other beacon of gentrification from the Mission District to Moscow or Johannesburg to Williamsburg — and you may overhear a hipster waxing philosophically about needing to “change the system.”

But in my experience, when pressed, there’s a limited number of people who can explain what they’re referring to with the term “system.” For most, systems are simply some vague notional construct to lean on when speaking about things that are wrong with the world. That doesn’t mean those hipsters are wrong. It’s often true that those systems they’re speaking out against desperately need to change. However, if our understanding of a system only comes from our recognition that change somewhere on something is needed, how can we ever hope to actually achieve sustainable change?

While countless definitions and interpretations exist, at the Global Knowledge Initiative we understand systems as a set of actors, including both individuals and institutions; interactions between those actors; and, an enabling environment that effects those actors (consisting of infrastructure, laws, cultural norms, etc.). All of these ingredients (actors, interactions, and enabling environment) are bound together in a distinct way that makes it (the system) perform specific functions and sets it apart from the rest of the world. With these four components — actors, interactions, enabling environment, and boundaries — we can analyze and understand any type of system under the sun.

We also start to see that systems are all around us, manifesting in all sorts of ways, from very simple ones to immensely complex ones.

At the simple end of this range we might imagine a group of friends that hangs out on the weekends. In this example, each friend would represent an actor. They all have interactions with each other to varying degrees. Their enabling environment would include factors associated with the places they live, such as the costs of rent and different types of transport infrastructure they use to get around, as well as the different ways they interact, like group chats and inside jokes. And depending on where they are, their boundary might change, from as big as the city to as small as a single apartment.

We also have very complex systems — our national socioeconomic system, for instance. In this example, the actors include individuals, such as ourselves, corporations, government institutions like the Federal Reserve, business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, lobbying groups, and the list goes on and on and on. The interactions in this system are primarily the purchase and sale of goods and services, but also include investments, information sharing between actors (such as insider trading), and almost anything that happens loosely concerned with money. And finally, there is the enabling environment, which includes things like taxes and interest rates, and, foundationally, a shared agreement that the US dollar has value and can be exchanged for goods and services.

Now imagine trying to map out the entire array of actors, institutions, and the enabling environment for the socioeconomic system of the United States. It would be a near insurmountable challenge. And even if you were able to map it out that would only represent a mere snapshot of the system at a particular moment in time. By the time you were finished, the system would be something different entirely. That is one of the challenges of complex systems: they aren’t static, but rather in a constant state of flux characterized by inter-dependencies and non-linear change.

The tricky thing is that, in general, when we talk about social change we are dealing with complex systems. These systems shape our lives. Our world. Climate change, income inequality, the decline of democracy — these are all outcomes that are being driven by systems on global and national scales.

But here’s the secret: while systems shape our world, we can also shape them. Doing so is nothing short of imperative if we are to rise to the challenges of the 21st Century, like adapting to climate change, feeding a growing population, and adjusting our economic model to exist within the limits of the Earth’s biosphere. But if we’re going to meet these challenges we not only need to see the world differently, we need to lead differently. That’s why my colleagues and I at the GKI partnered with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to study the concept of Systems Leadership, and its applications in international development.

We found that Systems Leaders are those who transform the systems in which they operate by influencing the system at multiple levels — the actors within the system, the linkages between them, and the enabling environment they operate within — to drive the emergence of new, often unpredictable patterns of organization in the system’s structure. In pursuit of these goals they utilize collaborative and strategic approaches to catalyze change.

You might think of them as the conductor of an orchestra. They’re not the ones playing the music, but they see, hear, and feel how all of the instruments, and the musicians playing those instruments, which are each producing a singular sound, can work together to create a beautiful symphony, or a disharmonious cacophony. In the same way, Systems Leaders activate actors across a system and link them in new and more productive ways to catalyze powerful forces of change. We argue that to lead effectively in the 21st century, including in international development, the application of the principles behind Systems Leadership, and the development of core competencies will be essential.

In Part 2 of this series we’ll look deeper into Systems Change and how it happens.