Strategies for systems change: My presentation @Harvard, in summary

Lorin Fries, Head of Food Systems Collaboration at the World Economic Forum and Ava Lala from Geneva Global and I spoke at the Harvard Social Enterprise conference in March on the topic of 'systems entrepreneurship'. Big thanks to Jeff Glenn for making it happen. 

This is a summary of what I said.

Our audience at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Our audience at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Our strategy for systems change: The Finance Innovation Lab

The Finance Innovation Lab blustered into existence on a rainy Friday, as few weeks before Christmas. The financial crisis had just hit and the news was full of people leaving skyscrapers carrying their belongings and graphs with arrows pointing downwards. 

I was working at ICAEW (The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) and we came together with WWF to host a one off event. A 'Credit Crunch Brunch', as an experiment to see what would happen if we brought our two groups of stakeholders together. We convened them around the question 'how might we create a financial system that sustains people and planet?' 

The event itself was pretty badly designed and badly facilitated. We didn't really know each other, let alone know what we were doing, but it didn't matter, it was totally oversubscribed.

We had brought together shiny suited accountants, lawyers and investment bankers, with environmental activists, corduroy wearing ecological economists who'd taken the train down from Cambridge University and twenty something economic justice campaigners. These were not people used to being in the same room together. They didn't read the same newspapers, their kids didn't go to the same schools, on paper they didn't really like each other very much. But if we did anything right that day, it was that we allowed them lots of time to talk to each other. And they started and didn't stop. By the end of the day we knew this was a project that needed to continue.

Over the next four years or so we worked first with Reos Partners and then with The Hara Collaborative to design a strategy for systems change. Our strategy was in simplified terms to:  

  • Convene a diverse group of stakeholders from across the financial system
  • Host them at 150 person events
  • Use participatory facilitation methods (namely Open Space) to get them organized into groups of people who wanted to change the same thing
  • Experiment with different ways of supporting the most promising solutions that emerged from this process 

Lots of these experiments failed of course, but some of them flew. The Natural Capital Coalition, grew from an innovation group in the Lab on 'internalizing externalities', its now a million dollar project supported by the World Bank and Rockefeller Foundation among others. Campaign Lab, designed to support economic justice campaigners, by teaching systemic strategy, is in its fourth year and AuditFutures, funded by the Big Four accounting organizations is innovating the future of the profession for society.  

How did our experiments change the system? 

When we emerged from the most busy period of the Lab and caught our breath, we tried to write it all up (see my blog on top tips I learnt from this painful process!).  We came across Transition Theory and found it a very useful framework to explain retrospectively how our work was working towards systems change in finance. 

Transition Theory (Geels 2002) 

Transition Theory (Geels 2002) 

The theory goes that if you want to try and change a system, you should work at multiple levels at the same time. He names three: 

  1. Landscape This is the 'climate of ideas', culture, societies' world view. This is the slowest to change.  
  2. Regime The Institutions, markets, organizations, companies we have built. The rules, policies and procedures that govern them. This is also slow to change. 
  3. Niches of Innovation The pockets of innovation that bubble up and represent alternatives to the current regime. Often built on different values, or with a different culture to the mainstream system. 
Some Finance Innovation Lab interventions 

Some Finance Innovation Lab interventions 

On reflection we saw that our experiments fitted into these levels:

  • Landscape Campaign Lab was changing the 'climate of ideas' by supporting campaigners to be more effective at calling out the deficiencies of the system
  • Regime Our Disruptive Finance program, brought together NGOs and think tanks across the system to lobby government to change the rules of the game in finance    
  • Niches of Innovation Simply by convening diverse people at 'Assemblies' and drinks we were helping to build a pipeline of new innovation. Helping to inspire and spark new ideas and to connect unconnected innovators. The Labs recently launched Fellowship program gets much more intentional about providing leadership support and community to pioneers who are innovating for good in the financial system.  

Common strategies for systems change

For the last three years or so, I have been actively researching what everyone else is doing to change systems. Aware that we by no means had all the answers, I wondered 'what are other strategies for shifting systems?'.

This I think is a useful exploration because there is growing interest in how to 'do' systems change. A common challenge I hear from potential systems changers is 'The theory is too complex and I have no idea where to start. 

I have convened or been involved in multiple gatherings around systems change over the years (Leaders Shaping Market Systems,, Keywords, the SiX Funders node) and I am starting to see some patterns.  Below I share some common strategies I see for intervening in systems, mapped onto Transition Theory. 

Common Strategies for systems change, mapped onto transition theory 

Common Strategies for systems change, mapped onto transition theory 

  • Landscape Tell stories yourself that point out the problems of the current system and highlight better ways of doing things. Engage the most skilled storytellers to do this for you; the media, campaigners and artists of all types. Create accelerators to support them to do this better.
  • Regime Convene actors across the incumbent systems and get them organized to come up with a shared declaration of what they think needs to change. Help them lobby the institutions who set the rules. Support pockets of innovators within the system. Link them up regularly and build programs that make it ok to question the current regime. Take this one step further and build incubators where they can build ideas about how to do things differently, from within. 
  • Niches of innovation Convene diverse actors to spark inspiration and build a pipeline for new ideas. Create incubators and accelerators to turn the best ideas into reality. Fund these experiments. Fund an ecosystem of support of new ideas and actors. Build a 'demonstrator', a physical example like a sustainable ship or an innovative school, to 'prove it in a pocket', so it can spread.   

Different types of system

Typically systems entrepreneurs spend a great deal of time connecting actors across their chosen system and use a number of the strategies above to intervene, at the same time. But the interventions they pick vary massively depending on the kind of system they are working on. 

Different types of systems 

Different types of systems 

You could be looking to shift an oligopoly in say food, finance or energy. You might be doing 'Pro-poor market development', mapping the supply chain of an inefficient market system in the developing world, like milk production, to see where you could fix broken links. You might be looking to shift an existing institution or organization itself, public service department or intergovernmental organization,  or to build a new market system, like Gender lens investing, where one currently doesn't exist. You might be taking on a black market system, trying to uncover how it works and breaking it down. Or you might be convening actors from across all of these kinds of systems, trying to move many of them at the same time. 

Characteristics of systems entrepreneurs

I ended my presentation by highlighting a few personality traits I'd noticed in the best system entrepreneurs I know. They are typically: 

  • Optimistic despite most people telling them repeatedly that change was impossible 
  • Open-minded a necessary trait for listening to the views of different people within the system, suspending judgment, being empathetic 
  • Patient systems change projects are slow by nature. Transformation and glory for a couple of years' work is unlikely  
  • Humble they are building a network of brilliant people who can work in new ways to change things. It's really not about one glorious leader, but rather someone who can cultivate the conditions for others to shine. 

I can't help myself slip in a note and say that most of them are also women. I'm wondering whether this is because we are socialized to be diplomatic and patient, or that maybe that our presence in powerful systems is sadly still unusual, so creates a different vibe that allows people to behave differently. I'm not sure. A thread I'm definitely interested to explore in the future. 

 What do you think?

This is obviously an over simplification of strategies for systems change.

But honestly I think I'm on a mission to radically simplify systems change.

I know from my own experience how much potential it holds and at the same time it is so sadly missing from so many social change initiatives. I have seen that one of the most significant barriers to spreading systemic thinking is that currently the books, theories, maps and terminology are completely overwhelming. It's just too damn intimidating.  I don't actually think it is that complex. 

But I would love to hear your thoughts. Specifically: 

  • What other major strategies for systems change am I missing? 
  • What other kinds of human systems am I missing that are the subject of systems change initiatives?

My aim is to keep working on this and to create a kind of 'beginners guide to systems change' that is so simple that anyone can pick it up and get started. 

Looking to create a strategy for systems change, but stuck? We can help you cut through the noise and develop a clear way forward. Get in touch