Design principles from Systems Changers
In 2015 the Point People started working with Lankelly Chase to design and deliver Systems Changers. We’ve run the programme twice now, bringing in Snook to work with us on it, and are now working out with Lankelly Chase how the programme can spread, be used by others, and also be experimented with in contexts beyond the frontline. It seems a good time to share some of the learning and insight we’ve gathered over the last two years, so over the next few weeks we’ll be doing some regular posts. This is about the design principles we used for the programme.
No matter what industry you’re in or what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier to design programmes when you base them on a set of principles. They help you set guidelines for every aspect of what you do, from tools to culture to delivery.
These are the principles we used for the Systems Changers programme. We put them in our initial proposal to Lankelly Chase and we’ve found them really helpful, not just in the design stage but throughout the programme.
Offer insights, not solutions
Staying in the experimental prototyping mindset is hard. It’s easy to slip into ‘delivery mode’ and let our own biases and preferences take charge.
Focus on discovery and questioning, not answers
Systems Changers isn’t about critical analysis. It’s intentionally designed to create a reflective, generative space for difficult questions.
This is because making sense of big challenges requires new sources of intelligence. When we can think and feel in new ways, especially in the contexts in which things are experienced, we can see, sense and touch possible points of intervention.
Hold multiple perspectives
No one voice, type of experience or perspective is more important than another. Systems Changers isn’t designed to overthrow existing hierarchies — it’s meant to bring frontline workers’ insights to the table alongside those from people with lived experience, from managers, from middle-managers, from policy makers, etc.
“Multiple perspectives” can also be applied to thinking about how influence is built. It’s not just in board rooms or around tables; influence can come through a prototype, through a report, through convening, through relationships and movement building, through a new service, through dismantling something that isn’t working any more, through film, etc.
Prototype and proposition to explore and create waves
Prototypes are tangible things that help to test and explore ambiguous assumptions. If we throw them into existing systems at play, they help us understand how the system reacts or interprets — like rocks thrown into a pond — a perpetual propositioning.
It’s limiting to see prototypes simply as tools for testing products and services. Prototyping is useful as a way to uncover what is important, and for whom, and then to understand and visualise what is changing and what is being perceived.
Separate people and change
Too often we assume the people who speak up should be the people who implement or steward that change. It’s important to place value on someone’s insights without assuming they want to be the ones to do the change.
Emphasise collective intelligence, not just individual insight
What does a collective of frontline workers know that an individual alone can’t? We wanted to create conditions where individual insights were made much more powerful, and with new patterns, through the collective or shared narratives those feelings and insights begin to tell.
Avoid getting boxed in
This principle was about challenging the notion of what a leadership and personal development programme is. Systems Changers isn’t about building “Systems Entrepreneurs” or “Systems Leaders”; we weren’t trying to get participants to come up with individual ideas to solve a systems challenge. (We recognised some of them might do that, but doing so wasn’t the programme’s main goal.)
Make change visible
As things change and people share their insights, we knew we had to make visible how those insights were being used to influence and inform different directions of change. Feedback loops became essential, both from the actors within systems change, and from the system itself too.
Learn from your “data”
Influencing change at scale requires ongoing insights — not once a month or once a week, but through ongoing, reflexive, and well-documented practice.
We saw our frontline workers’ insights like real-time data that could provide additional intelligence during the problem definition, option setting, and evaluation phases of the policy process. And, through understanding what “data” they collect and generate, we could also see how to challenge what traditionally constitutes evidence.
Create the space and permission for repositioning
Over time we wanted the programme to reposition frontline workers from not only deliverers and implementers but also to suppliers of policy intelligence, holders of risk, and movement builders.
Empower archaeologists and architects
Articulating new roles can be difficult. Through metaphors like archaeologists (people who uncover and surface what is already there) and architects (people who build new infrastructure for change), we made it easier to understand where people could make the most impact.
Value time and space
Although the Systems Changers programme is just six months, we knew ongoing structures would be needed to support cohorts to keep developing systems change as a practice. As the programme grows there will be additional ways, different types of spaces and lengths of time through which Systems Changers can still get support, inspiration and challenge.
This isn’t just nice — it’s effective. Being ‘in it for the long term’ leads to a different quality of decision making and action, a different type of ongoing structure to enable change. People have more vulnerability, personal investment and grit on the frontline. They are “evolved rather than maverick” and need a reflective, generative space for difficult questions and helpful answers, not just critical analysis.
Help people find the right tone to be heard
Frontline workers are passionate about their work because they’re literally on the front lines of the decisions made behind the scenes. We needed to help our cohort frame their insights in ways senior leadership could understand. In the words of a 2015 cohort member:
“Those with power and the ability to make decisions are often pulled in many different directions. Inevitably, not everyone will be happy with the outcome. I think this is hard for frontline workers of any industry to remember because they only see the very real implications of decisions that are made and how they affect individuals. If frustration comes out in anger — I can see how policymakers have a tendency to shut down and not listen to frontline workers, even though their insights are often the most useful.”