Shifting Conditions and Systems Change

It’s a big week for the planet.

UN Climate Action Summit is happening, as is the UN SDG Summit.

In alignment, 23 states in the US have dubbed September 23-30 “Climate Week”.

I went to my local Climate Strike on Friday, grateful for the songs, signs, and sunglasses (because I always cry at collective action events).

I watched Greta Thunberg’s moving testimony yesterday.

And Maine Governor Janet Mills spoke at the UN, declaring Maine would be carbon neutral by 2045.

The science is clear about what the consequences are for inaction. We’re even clear, in many cases, what to do about it.

What we need to do is create radical change in multiple systems. From the system of our own thoughts and daily habits to how we govern, create policy, give money, and do business.

Today, Cam Norman at told us about the Systems Design Toolkit developed by “an enthusiastic team of passionate innovators.” (By the way, if you don’t follow Cam’s blog and subscribe to his newsletter, you should.  Everything he writes is pure, actionable, gold.  And I don’t say that just because I have a soft spot for Canadians.) 

Look at the pictures of people using these tools. They’re huddled around tables armed with paper, markers, and photographs.  This is collective mind, body, soul work here, people. And we need it everywhere. You don’t get this online, at a distance, safely inside your comfort zone.   Do not be fooled into thinking this work is floppy because it looks like fun.  It is rigorous, hard work worth doing.

I recently tweeted about a 2018 FSG report called “The Water of Systems Change” that offers a valuable perspective of systems change work.  The report was intended for private foundations to help them “shift the conditions that are holding a problem in place” (emphasis mine).   FSG has also put together an Action Learning Exercise to accompany the report that will walk you through a series of reflective questions and activities.

Take 30 seconds and think about how many conditions can you think of that are holding a problem you care about in place?    Chances are, you’ve got a laundry list of them. Everything from how you think to the polices that are in place.  More than half are probably things you feel powerless to do anything about.

The  FSG model of the 6 Conditions for Systems Change is useful because it covers all the categories of “stuff” on your “List of Things Keeping this Problem in Place.”  With a little effort an individual (or better yet, an organization) can get a sense of where they are creating change and who else is creating change on the same issue, in different ways.

Source: John Kania, Mark Kramer and Peter Senge (2018). The Water of Systems Change, FSG, June 2018. 

One of my favorite things to do is figure out how to take ideas off the page and into practice.  I’m a curly-haired version of this guy  from the movie Airplane! Give me a report and I’ll show you how to turn it into a hat, a broach, and a pterodactyl.

I recently used this report as a framework to help client think about their organization’s activities and place in the systems change landscape. (Aside: I hadn’t seen FSG’s Action Learning Exercise then, or even before I wrote this post!)  I developed a slide deck for my client because the organization is out-of-state and we couldn’t do this work in the same place. The examples I’m giving here are the steps you could use in your own organization with people who can be co-located.   I’m not going into it for this post, but the “inverted triangle” can also be a starting place for program design and evaluation.

Sample side from a series applying the Inverted Triangle to an organization.

Here we go.

Each box represents an intervention point for systems change. We can think of them as styles, similar to musical styles or movie categories.  We need activity in all these areas to shift systemic conditions.  The point isn’t that one organization or initiative should develop programs or produce results in every style.  No one entity could do all this and shouldn’t try.

An individual or organization can use this model to be clearer about where their work falls in this landscape now and where it could go in the future.  The inverted triangle can also help us map others’ work on the same issue.  (I haven’t used the Systems Design Toolkit, but I bet the toolkit and this report would play well together.)

Map your organization’s systems change work

You can print out the 6 Conditions of System Change image and physically map your organization’s work, grants, and programs onto it.  Don’t just think about it. Use pennies, push pins, or sticky notes so you can see where you are and move things around. You could also project the image on a large white board and write on it directly.  If you’re doing this with a group, pull out a roll of white butcher paper and hand draw the diagram.  It would also be informative for individuals or departments throughout an organization to do this exercise separately and compare results.  Imagine the insights if your marketing department sees the organization’s work operating in different areas than the senior leadership or program staff.

Map other players working on the same problem

Let’s say your organization played along and reached a collective understanding about how you create systems change (and you did this peaceably with everyone as friends by the end). You’ve probably got empty boxes on your triangle.

Don’t be sad.  Get out another triangle and find some more sticky notes.

This time around, we brainstorm.

First, place a marker on the condition your organization is most effective at shifting. (Pro tip: Use an evaluation report to help here!) Use a copy of your logo, an item branded with your logo, or another object that represents your firm for the marker if you can.

What people and organizations can you think of  that are working to create systems change around the problem you are?  Color-coding may be helpful here to differentiate the actors.  Green might designate people and organizations in your state or local area with yellow for national or international groups.  You get the idea.  Get them all out and do the best you can to place their work on the most appropriate condition.

Who is missing? Organizations that are top of mind to you and your team may insert unintended bias into this exercise.  Take the time to identify organizations and actors that may be missing from the picture.  Systems change is about people, and the people your work seeks to benefit better be included in this process.  If they aren’t in the room when you’re doing this, invite them in and do it again.

Take a picture of this colorful image and write down which organizations works on which conditions. Now you have a big picture understanding of who is working on what for your issue.  Hopefully your systems change triangle is full and you’re not feeling lonely anymore.

Identify allies and new partners.

Now we winnow.  (I hope you recorded all the people and organizations from the brainstorming!) Go through each group and keep only organizations you think are most effective (or could be most effective) partners for you in shifting the landscape of your issue.   This isn’t only about who is doing the best work.  It is also about who YOU think can do your best work WITH.  (I’m all about collaboration and team work.)

Draw a line between your organization and any other organization you have a connection with. Use a thin line if your connection is tenuous (you know know they exist and monitor their activities a bit) and a thicker line if your connection is stronger (like having an existing partnership on a program, initiative, or grant).  Do you have a lot of thin lines?  Or only a few thick ones?  Are there actors in the system you respect and aren’t connected to at all?   Think about who is missing again.

The next steps depend too much on context for me to be much help from behind a keyboard.  Look at where you have thin lines, thick lines, and no lines.  Think about what this means and what you want to do about it.  How does this relate to your strategic plan, your outreach activities, and upcoming projects?

Imagine what progress we could make if several organizations got together and mapped their work on a big issue like climate change.

What do you think might happen?


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