Towards ‘Targeted Systems Change’

Modelling and communicating how to shift systems

Sam Rye
Jan 31 · 8 min read


  • Communicating the research, synthesis, strategy + execution for systems change is difficult but necessary. I present a model for doing that.
  • I share how I blended systems analysis, strategy and prototyping, to develop a portfolio of prototypes which make up a systems change initiative.
  • I share some insights about alternative approaches to developing, scaling and coordinating systems interventions, which may be more effective at increasing the likelihood of reaching a desired state.

A Model for Targeted Systems Change

I developed this model as part of my Masters of Design, in order to communicate my design process, and to give shape to the sometimes slippery concept of systems change work which may be about culture, relationships and products/services.

For more information about the model, you can read the full story at:
  1. Strategic Insights & Hypotheses — a diagnosis and direction for action.
  2. Portfolio of Prototypes — an array of interventions which give form to the strategic action.

On Systems Leverage

In addition to the model of systems change, I wanted to explore how to best articulate the important nuances of the strategy’s specific target. In doing so, I was reading Adam Groves’ piece about moving from service design to systems change [3], in which he introduced a systems leverage map, based on concepts from Donella Meadows and Simon Wardley’s work.

For more information about this map, you can read the full story at:
  1. A boundary artefact to engage in generative discussion and critique about the design of an intervention, with others.
  2. A way to visualise the discrete or interconnected nature of an intervention, but also potentially the amount of resource to be invested in each (use size to denote scale), alternative scenarios (use colour to denote alternative scenarios), or really whatever else people dream up.

Crafting a Systemic Intervention

In formulating my final written part of my Masters, I explored how to share the non-linear nature of my design practice. What I ended up sharing was this simple visual:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

- Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher

To this end, as I mentioned in the description of the model, I feel that the stacks of systems analysis, strategy and prototype portfolio are a minimum-viable architecture to design a systems intervention. Yet it’s the weaving together of these, and the ability to zoom in and out, and evaluate and evolve that is the art of creating an intervention that is likely to succeed. As Dan Hill notes in ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses’ [4]— zooming from the meta to the matter is a core competency of strategic designers. We need to give form to ideas which may evolve into something much bigger (such as a workshop resource which introduces a new culture of working together), but also be able to play in the dark matter (such as navigating power and relationships) that makes up systems.

On Scaling Impact

Finally, I’d like to offer some thoughts about systems change and impact, based on the insights from closely attuning my work with cutting edge research about complexity and its implications for how we approach complex challenges.

Alternative Approaches To Scaling

Well, if we’re not going to ‘scale up’ a pilot that has worked, what could we do instead? How could we have the scale of impact which we need, given the size of the challenges which face us locally and globally, today?

  1. Replicate + Adapt. The driving force of evolution is the constant cycle of replication and adaptation. Incentivising this approach for systems change activities could avoid the need for scaling up individual efforts, by significant replication of the core of an intervention, which is then localised to a specific context. For example, a funder might recognise the value in this approach, and fund a systems change initiative with explicit budget to open source the intervention (e.g. service / product blueprints and handbooks) so that others could replicate. Having taken Lifehack (our social lab on youth mental health in NZ) in this direction, I am deeply surprised this doesn’t happen more often.
  2. Cascade. This is a nascent thought, but I regularly see this pattern in nature whereby a species of animal or tree creates conditions for many others to live. Whether it’s a beaver dam, a tree with a large canopy, or a hermit crab, this pattern is common and has potential to be explored. I could see a role for ‘keystone’ interventions which create a sort of beach head into a system where a complex challenge (like obesity for example) may exist. These keystone interventions would explicitly be part-funded to share insights, relationships and resources which allow other, niche interventions, to get started and make a difference.


[1] The Finance Innovation Lab. (2015). A Strategy for Systems Change. Page 28. London, UK. Retrieved from:

Fieldnotes by Sam Rye

Exploring next-gen practice to help us bring about a better world; using a lens of complexity, systems change, participatory design and strategy.

Sam Rye

Written by

Sam Rye

Connecting with people with purpose; working to make people more comfortable working in complexity, so we can make better decisions that restore our planet.

Fieldnotes by Sam Rye

Exploring next-gen practice to help us bring about a better world; using a lens of complexity, systems change, participatory design and strategy.