Growing a systems mindset is a lifelong practice , like progressing in martial arts from a white to black belt. If we take the Sustainable Shipping Initiative as an example, it took three years to find the right people in the right organisations and form this coalition through envisioning and developing innovation work-streams.
2. Find opportunities
Change will not happen unless we create something new. In nature, our living systems change through multiple experiments that evolve and shift the world around us. Shell Foundation has been pioneering new social enterprises such as Envirofit which produces affordable cookstoves that create beneficial environmental, health and social impacts. Through constant learning, the Foundation has realised that creating products and services is not all that is needed — instead, we need to experiment with the way one builds markets.
This is why it supports the Global Alliance to create a thriving global market for these stoves. We spend a lot of time creating new innovations or piloting projects but this in itself will not create a system shift. We need to create platforms that support innovation and learning so we start to accelerate the scale and reach of change. Nike, with USAid and Nasa, have created such a platform called Launch , which seeks to accelerate a revolution in sustainable materials through utilising networks, strategies and resources for change.
We need to start connecting different actors and organisations so that radical ideas and innovations can be joined up with each other and help shift systems. Cultivating system change is also about creating the space for the emergence of innovations and active networks of practitioners.
Environmental and social NGO campaigns have tended to focus on what is going wrong by looking to change the polices and parameters of a particular system. To actively open up permission to create change, we need to support the consolidation of change into new narratives for society. Creative initiatives like the Story of Stuff have started to do this by helping to shift the conversation from the buying of more stuff to having less — and better — stuff.
However, we need to get more sophisticated in how we come together to influence the wider cultural conversation. This will influence how we operate in systems such as food, energy and finance. Join the community of sustainability professionals and experts. Become a GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox. I have been working for more than a decade on how to make system change happen and have distilled six strategies for action: Convene people System change begins and ends with people ready to lead themselves and their organisations.
Find opportunities By their nature, systems are complex and we are not always sure where or when they might transform. Align visions to our living systems Many of our actions do not feel as if they are helping us get close to solving the huge sustainability challenges we face — issues like climate change. Experiment system Change will not happen unless we create something new.
Innovation and learning platforms We spend a lot of time creating new innovations or piloting projects but this in itself will not create a system shift. Communicate a coherent story Environmental and social NGO campaigns have tended to focus on what is going wrong by looking to change the polices and parameters of a particular system. Anyone could probably figure out a way to use it, but a person adept at bike repair could quickly find and use the ideal tool for a specific type of repair.
They could also adapt the tool for different situations, even beyond bike repair. Building a systems mindset gives you the same flexibility to optimize and adapt a range of tools to your situation. A systems mindset is more effective when shared broadly across networks and deeply from the grassroots to systems leaders.
Leaders need to develop a systems mindset intentionally—among all stakeholders and over time—to create continuous and consistent systems-level action. Sometimes we rely too much on too few tools, but not every nail needs the same hammer; we need more tools to go in the toolbox described above. One of us recently used a power analysis a tool that maps players on continuums of support to opposition, and more to less power to identify ways to create more family-sustaining jobs.
The gathering could have led to collective action, but the effort stalled. A better tool may have been concept mapping , which would have illustrated how different stakeholders perceive the problem and potential solutions, and sparked dialogue on how to reconcile differences.
Our research uncovered more than 50 systems frameworks, processes, and tools that communities, grassroots movements, academia, and government are using around the globe. These can help answer questions that emerge during a systems change process, for example:. The Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide provides a directory of these tools and guidance on how to select the right one. Worse, it can lead to false consensus that perpetuates the status quo or oppressive dynamics.
One of us recently worked on a cross-sector financial security initiative for low-income citizens. We developed a plan for collective action, but the group lacked the level of shared trust needed to build deeper, systemic solutions. This dynamic unfortunately hinders many efforts. Focusing on human dynamics is critical when:. The promise of a systems approach is finding solutions that match the scale of complex problems.