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What is Systems Change?

The scope, complexity, and scale of the systems we seek to transform requires that we cultivate collective intelligence and coordinate collective action.

What do we mean by a “system”?

A system is a collection of actors that interact with one another in complex ways, producing uncertain outcomes in the process.

The word system is used a lot, and in many different ways, by many different people. For us in the eye care sector, we tend to identify as a member of one of the systems of medical education and research, insurance and reimbursement, grant making and program implementation, or one of the many others that make up what we think of as the eye healthcare system.

It is tempting to think of systems in this way as things with clear boundaries, rigid rules and regulations, and governed by a responsible authority.

While these designed systems are important, they are not the only ones that matter.

Instead, we are beginning to think of systems as a set of processes that are ultimately defined by what they do. The system that we care about is the one that enables or inhibits all people to achieve healthy eyes and their full potential as human beings.

The boundaries of that system are much bigger and more inclusive than those that define the eye healthcare system alone. Transforming that system will mean thinking very differently about who our collaborators are and recognizing that success or failure in achieving our goals is not fully up to us as a sector.

What is complexity and why does it matter?

As complex as the eye healthcare system is, the whole system that influences eye health is even more so.

It is important to understand that we do not just mean that the system is complicated. Complicated things have many parts, making them difficult to understand. But with enough study and expertise, they can be understood and ultimately brought under our control.

Complexity is different because it is defined by uncertainty. In a complex system, cause-and-effect becomes uncertain, and we find ourselves unable to predict the results of the interventions we propose.

In social systems, cause and effect are uncertain because individuals and organisations make decisions and act independently. We might take one action only to find that the reactions of others have counteracted our own, meaning that the results of our interventions come in far below our expectations. At another time, a small change might go unnoticed for quite a while, only to result in a massive shift after a long-time delay.

If you have ever described something as more than the sum of its parts or as a vicious cycle, you have already been thinking in terms of complexity.

In creating policy, regulation, markets, contracts, and other explicit rules of the system, society attempts to bring order to the way individuals and organisations are supposed to interact with one another. But even after thousands of years of continual creativity in systems design, we find that the most pervasive rules of the system are those rooted in relationships, power, individuals’ mental models, cultural norms, and societal paradigms.

If we accept that the system is constantly changing and its rules are unclear, we are left with one very obvious conclusion: none of us can fully understand a system on our own.

And if we cannot understand the system, our success or failure in transforming it to meet our needs and expectations will be based on little more than luck.

What is Systems Change and Systems Leadership?

Systems Leadership is the capacity to, and practice of, thinking systemically and acting collaboratively in pursuit of a deeply desired System Change intent.

If complex systems are constantly in flux, then talking about systems change as a practice is deeply connected with our intent for the direction of that change. It is a human process, like so many others, which imagines a vision of a better future and then works to bring it into being.

Complexity ensures that, in pursuit of that better future, we will run across a landscape continually shifting under our feet. For this reason, systems change shares much in common with other innovation approaches that emphasise prototyping and rapid adaptation to new information.

However, the scope, degree of complexity, and sheer scale of the systems we seek to transform requires that we cultivate collective intelligence and coordinate collective action, throughout this innovation process.

Continually developing collective intelligence and action as we persevere across an uncertain landscape is not easy. Systems leadership is not a job title, but rather the capacity to apply systems change principles and practices over the long run; a skill that must be practised by the many, not just the few.

Systems change, as a field, subscribes to a number of shared principles and is continually generating and refining a library of methods that supports systems leaders in their work. We will talk more about these in this section, but for now, we should understand that systems change requires collective leadership. It asks that individuals work together to create and enable conditions in which many actors can collaborate and innovate to achieve a collective vision.

Why do we need to embrace complexity?

Any time we build collectives large and diverse enough to meet the challenge of transforming a system, we will eventually be humbled by the sheer diversity of perspectives.

Working together with others, especially those from outside our organisation, sector, or discipline, we inevitably encounter perspectives different from our own, ones that challenge how we think. Assembling a complete picture from all of that noise is tough. No matter our position of authority or how educated we are, we all have a limit to how much complexity we can handle.

Compared to working comfortably in our silos, working in collectives means that we are far more likely to face down this feeling of being overwhelmed. When we do, we tend to narrow our focus to what we can better understand and control.

Holding complexity requires a community made up of members who have open minds to consider new perspectives, open hearts to care about more than their own position or authority, and open wills to take on big, audacious missions.

As systems leaders, our task is to help each other develop the ability to handle complexity together. This is the basis for constructing collective intelligence and a foundation for collective action.

Diagram showing cultivating the collective ability to deal with complex problems increased tolerance for handling complexity and reduced silo thinking