Changing complex (social) problems is not easy. But first we need to start with the basics and understand the 3 most important steps when tackling these systems-level change initiatives.
Changing a complex system is never easy. No matter if we are talking about social change or company transformation. All these change challenges have one thing in common – high complexity. But if you are not able to identify the real problem of the system you will find yourself investing in a solution that might be ineffective, expensive, or making this even worse.
This happens in a lot of companies and also social change initiatives. There is a lot of beliefs and not enough understanding of what really affects the system. Taking a look at the bigger picture will also result in the effort of understanding many stakeholders, how they interact, and what exactly influences them and their decisions. Systems thinking means in the end a deep understanding of the web of relations between all the stakeholders that create these complex problems and enables you to rethink basic assumptions on how to make this change happen.
This concept is not new. Systems thinking has been around for quite a while and still, global problems are present. But why are leaders and decision-makers not changing? Which tools and practices need to be in play to make day-to-day work more efficient in a more holistic way? How can we move from theory to practice?
Here you will find the key aspects of making a holistic and lasting systems-change within society or business
1. Systems mindset as the basis
Creating a holistic systems mindset is a prerequisite for any successful change management. All necessary parties involved need to have the same mindset and see the problems and solutions through the “lens of the system”.
Training the systems mindset
But we also need to admit that a systems mindset is built via time and a mindset change. It needs to be trained and it needs to be nurtured. “Challenging the big picture” or “Finding the root cause” are good starting points for beginners. When you go deeper into the system dynamics then you might find yourself thinking about “What are universal repeatable solutions that occur in the whole system”.
Share and grow with others
Systems mindset and systems thinking is way more effective when shared with others. It might be your team, your company, your own network, national or international communities that help you in challenging the status quo. But this mindset might also come to hold when there are leaders and key stakeholders involved who don’t understand this approach. For a global impact, it is then necessary to look at the stakeholders and leaders involved and enable them in systems thinking and change their mindset to make it work.
Grow your own toolset
Another important factor in a systems mindset is that you are building your tool-set. As mentioned before it is a training thing and the more techniques you learn, the better you can adapt your thinking to new challenges. Proactively building a systems mindset will help you tackle lots of different challenges in business and society to solve these issues more holistically.
2. Tools to understand the system
There are different brainstorming methods out there. In the end, it is a matter of situation, experience, and preference of the participants which toolset can be used. Coming from social systems change this is a great resource for 50 systems tools. No matter what tools you will use in your process, there should be some key questions you should answer.
- What are the key players in the system you want to change?
- How are the key stakeholders connected?
- What are the power dynamics within the system?
- What are the reasons that lead to the current status quo?
- What process could be used to implement a systems change?
- What is the best strategy to influence this change management process?
- What is the overall readiness for a systems change?
- What is the capacity for a systems change?
- How can we learn what is working or what is not working when we change the system?
3. Understanding human dynamics
The “people” part is one of the most important factors in every change project. One article also outlining the consequences is following 95% Transformation and only 5% Digital – True Digital Transformation. Trust and the common understanding is a basic need to build working systematic change solutions. So focusing on human dynamics and human decision-making is key for every system change project.
Key areas you should consider when changing complex systems
As a first step, it is very important to include all those who would benefit from your solution. Gather the feedback directly from the participants and involve them throughout the whole process, so they can give direct feedback. This way you better understand their needs, prioritize systemic solutions that are relevant and most impactful.
Face also challenging conversation
In most systems, you will find a lot of differences in power or even biases. This imbalance in resources, influence, and power are important to be understood. To tackle these problems you need to address these underlying issues. Mediating conflicts in these shared, multi-stakeholder spaces can be best done through 1-on-1 discussions, educational workshops, or bigger group workshops. The better you are facing these dialogues before the systems change, the easier it will be to move the people later on. This is a delicate part and you should carefully consider how you approach it.
Set clear boundaries
Working together on a systems change is a big task. But when you clearly define the boundaries it will also create a feeling of belonging. The more you involve your stakeholders in defining what is in scope and what is out of scope, the easier it will be to create a common goal. It furthermore helps to develop a common vision as well as a common sense of identity and values.
Important: Don’t just set the boundaries of what should be inside. Be also very clear about what is NOT in scope for this project!
It’s not about Management
Go beyond C-Level and involve everyone. Successful and long-lasting systems change is only possible when you have as many stakeholders on board as necessary. Diversity and Inclusion is there a MUST. As mentioned before, you need to enable everyone involved with systems thinking methods and give everyone a stake in participating. This does not only give everyone a feeling of empowerment but also creates spaces for thoughts and dialogue which might help to bring the change forward. Be honest and transparent in your communication, don’t build silos for management and think of developing a shared space for exchange.
Systems thinking is an approach to tackle global scale or very complex problems. Again we see that it is very important to have a common understanding of change, change management, and that we have to empower everyone to be a part of this change. When you think holistically about this and when every stakeholder has a systems mindset, then you will see that change management in complex systems is doable and also successful.