Covid-19 and systems change: some reflections from the field

Laura Winn
May 21, 2020 · 9 min read
Rogan Brown, Control x

This extraordinary global situation that we’re in right now calls for us to be able to appreciate and work with the world in a way that is complex and systemic. David Nabarro, a high-level advocate of living systems leadership and current Special Envoy of World Health Organization Director-General on Covid-19, has summed up the extent to which this crisis — and therefore how we must address it — is deeply systemic, in one of his recent Coronavirus narratives:

The anticipation [in response to Covid-19] goes beyond public health and hospital systems to the functioning of different settlements, arrangement for residential care, the resilience of systems for producing and distributing food as well as for ensuring people’s access to nutrition, employment, travel, trade. It involves all of society’s systems: for ensuring access to education, law and order, food and nutrition, employment, social protection and much more.

As I read ever more articles from distinguished and accomplished system change practitioners from different places in the world, I have been reflecting and sense-making through the lense of a framework that we use at the School of System Change.

Ten systemic practices

This framework prompts us to think, act and be in the world in ways that are more aligned with how we at the School understand the world to work; not like a machine, but as a living system. Things are complex and interconnected, change is operating on different levels, from the very micro, to the very macro. This set of ten practices is a way of reminding ourselves how we might think a bit more systemically.

In this blog I will share where four of these systemic practices are showing up in conversations and how systems change practitioners are deploying them in their analysis and proposals around Covid-19.

Working across multiple timescales

At the moment our time horizons have shrunk to next month, next week… With all the uncertainty, we are engaging in very short term planning: if schools do go ahead and open, I’ll do this… if they don’t I’ll organise my life differently next month like this… We are constantly developing scenarios, multiple possible cases for future action, depending on key criteria we have consciously or unconsciously identified.

We are also seeing very long-term questions emerge. What is the opportunity that we are seeing now to really think into the future? What is the future we want to create? How might we ensure our next steps, our short-term plans, are a step in the right direction to this future vision? Arundhati Roy has described the pandemic as a portal, saying “we can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudices and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

One of the ways systems practitioners explore these questions and imagine another world, a desirable future, is by using futures tools. These help us think about the future in order to better plan and act now. However, we need to be careful about the mindset and assumptions behind the ways we are working here. Are we assuming that we can “know” the future, predict and plan, and that things will go according to plan? Or are we sensing our way into a complex future of constant living change?

Three horizons framework

At the School of System Change we support change-makers to take a more systemic approach, for example using the Three horizons framework to understand change as waves over time, with pockets of the future existing in the present.

Engaging multiple perspectives

One of the key things for us about the way we have these conversations about the future is that we need to engage different perspectives, and envision the future collectively, so that it is not a vision that has been uniquely produced by people in positions of power, who can write the future from their dominant perspective. As adrienne maree brown says in her book Emergent Strategy: “We have to create futures in which everyone doesn’t have to be the same kind of person. That’s the problem with most utopias for me: they are presented as mono value, a new greener more local monoculture where everyone gardens and plays the lute and no-one travels… And I don’t want to go there!”

There is an invitation to us to think about how we make an extra effort when we are confined to our homes, in our Zoom bubbles with lots of people we like and want to talk to. Making an effort to stretch our perspectives, involve more views, reach out to people who aren’t thinking like us.

Wendy Schultz and Dave Snowden have created a little online sensemaker tool to collect different views of the future that are emerging during this Covid-19 time. As Wendy says, “It’s a good time to exercise our imaginations about what we personally think might be the results — upside scenarios, downside scenarios, really weird scenarios, whatever people are imagining. Because the future that emerges will evolve from the collisions, the intersections, and the negotiations among all those futures and our ideas about them.” Thinking about the future in ways that are plural and divergent has never been so important.

Experimenting, struggling, failing and learning

We are in a world where complexity has become more evident, suddenly we have seen how collected different systems are: health, food, governance. In my view this complexity has always been there, but now we can see global interconnectedness better (see part 3 of this article by Ahmed Nafeez about synchronous failure). In this uncertain time we need to be experimenting and testing, and probably also failing a lot so we can learn. As our global systems “fail”, so we will surely fail too in many of our efforts to bring about systems change.

I’m not noticing this theme of failure so much in the articles I’ve been reading recently. I have seen writings about the future from collectives around open democracy, ecologist movements, social justice movements, sustainable business leaders. I have read about the importance of learning from what we’re doing. However, beyond the discourse of experimentation and learning, I feel we need to usher in a conversation about how we will struggle through this learning time. Even just things like moving all our conversations online, are we noticing what is working and what is not? What is NOT working? What is hard? What are we learning from that?

Change curve framework

I sometimes use a simple framework to understand how we might move through this struggle, and how we might be engaging emotionally with learning to do things differently. This helps me remember that although at the beginning things might be exciting, things will get more difficult before they get easier again. Where are we on this curve? And where are others? Sometimes we might also fail and fall off this curve altogether, we never arrive at the “new normal”. Bearing in mind that different people will be in different relationship to the process of change is essential to understanding how to navigate this process together.

Action inquiry cycle

Action inquiry can help us go through a four-stage process, starting with questions, then actions, experience and reflections. One of the things I like about this framework is that it draws out the difference between experience and reflection. First we sit with what we experienced through action, so that we can have greater wisdom around that, coming from intellectual but also emotional and physical knowledge. How did it feel? How did my body react? What were the emotions brought into this? Rather than going straight into analysis and thinking about what to do next. Then we can reflect and sense-make from this deeper place.

In a recent blog article as part of the new Gaia initiative, Otto Scharmer also invites us into a cycle that takes us deeper, using “presencing” as part of our processes:

The outer changes necessary today require us to tune into and activate our inner sources, the deeper levels of our humanity. […] But are we able to activate these deeper sources of knowing? And how can we activate them not only at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the whole system?

Tuning in to power

This is really important when doing system change work: pay attention to how power is being wielded and used as part of the process of change. One of the things that is interesting about this particular crisis is that at the outset, this very contagious virus has created a crisis that appears to lend itself to being tackled by power in the form of centralised control. Other crises — climate change, inequality — just don’t respond to this form of centralised power. Charles Eisenstein has described this well:

Simply, in the face of world hunger, addiction, autoimmunity, suicide, or ecological collapse, we as a society do not know what to do. That’s because there is nothing external against which to fight. Our go-to crisis responses, all of which are some version of control, aren’t very effective in addressing these conditions. Now along comes a contagious epidemic, and finally we can spring into action. It is a crisis for which control works: quarantines, lockdowns, isolation, hand-washing; control of movement, control of information, control of our bodies. That makes Covid a convenient receptacle for our inchoate fears, a place to channel our growing sense of helplessness in the face of the changes overtaking the world. Covid-19 is a threat that we know how to meet. Unlike so many of our other fears, Covid-19 offers a plan.

We might try to notice how is this centralised form of power showing up in us? In our organisations, which are under economic pressure, in NGOs and businesses, some leaders are making decisions and imposing them in an authoritarian way. In myself, this is definitely showing up in how I am being with my kids — I’m being told what to do, so I’m telling them what to do all the time!

We might also question whether centralised control is the most effective form of power in the face of a global pandemic that is a symptom of the fragility of our interconnected global systems, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores. We know climate change and inequality are more than simple “crises”. Covid-19 is also more than a crisis that can be “solved” in this centralised way. What other forms of power do we need to use and invent now?

We need to explore power as it shows up in different places and different forms. There is not just one type of power. So we can ask ourselves some key questions: Which actors are wielding what kind of power? What are its characteristics? What is my relationship to power and privilege, and how is this resonant or discordant with what is going on in the world?


These four areas of systemic practice start to offer questions we need to ask ourselves during this time of change:

  • How might we explore multiple desirable futures so the adaptive pathways from this crisis lead us towards a future founded on multiple values?
  • How might we engage different perspectives and design for diversity?
  • How might we lean into experimentation, trial and error, struggle and cycles of learning?
  • How do we engage with power, understanding that it has multiple forms and is fluid?

What additional questions are you asking to ensure you are taking a systemic approach? Which systemic practices have you noticed or read about in the face of Covid-19?

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.

Laura Winn

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School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.