Five Lessons for Systems Change
While a study of just six organizations can by no means create an exhaustive list of practices, certain patterns and lessons emerged from the research. The latter can hopefully serve to “ground” systems change in the real world, showing how social entrepreneurs are seeking new ways of organizing and operating to achieve systemic scale.
The most important theme arising from these systems entrepreneurs is a mindset that removes the organization or even a programme as the central object of focus, and instead focuses on influencing the social system itself. While the sector has long been obsessed with aspiring to achieve scale, systems entrepreneurs seem to take a different approach altogether. They use their operations to influence the linkages and interconnections of the system rather than reaching all intended beneficiaries with a predefined solution.
Systems work defies a cookie-cutter approach, as shown by the social enterprises studied. Thus, not all of the lessons will apply to every organization or every context. Rather, the aim is to inspire social entrepreneurs interested in systems change to consider ways that they might move in this direction, or even identify ways in which they are already working towards systems change.
Issues and challenges that emerged repeatedly across these lessons are worth highlighting:
First, the term “advocacy” has not been used loosely, having become diluted from overuse. When used, the term focuses on activities organizations undertake to change laws and policies at the local, national, and international levels. However, advocacy is a broad term that can be used in almost every example of systems change to describe the act of influencing individuals, institutions and decision-makers to assume a new vision for how a social system works.
Second, systems change often requires new organizational skills and capacities that an organization might not have otherwise. Organizations focused on service delivery do not always have experience or expertise in coalition building, negotiating legislative reform, or technical assistance and capacity building, among other skills important to systems change. Each organization studied has had to hire people for these skills or develop the capacity internally; this has usually been an iterative process, with successes and mistakes along the way.
Finally, systems change often requires a new way of communicating, both internally and externally, about an organization’s work. To highlight two extremes: in one case, this resulted in a thoughtful re-branding exercise whereas, in another, an entirely new organization was formed. Across this spectrum, organizations engaged in systems change have had to consider how their service delivery activities are positioned in relation to their systems work, and how this is perceived by clients, beneficiaries, partners and funders.