2022 – 2023

Equipping ClientEarth to understand the dynamics of the systems they work in and the links between them, and how they can develop stronger partnerships

The Backdrop

ClientEarth uses the power of the law to protect all life on Earth, working in partnership across borders, systems and sectors to advocate for a future in which people and planet thrive together. ClientEarth came to Collaborate in the midst of implementing a new five-year strategy aiming to increase its impact, enable prioritisation and bring coherence among work areas. The strategy put systems thinking at its heart.

Under the strategy ClientEarth is organising its work around six ‘systems’ — from energy to materials to transport—which they have identified as creating outcomes they are seeking to influence. To implement the new strategy, ClientEarth needed new tools to embed systems thinking capabilities, to map these systems, and to understand how it could develop its partnerships in support of the change it was seeking. To support this, Collaborate designed a programme to meet the immediate need to understand their systems and partnerships better while also building capabilities for the longer term.

What we did

We undertook a strategic review of ClientEarth’s approach to partnerships and started to develop capabilities across the team around systems thinking and practice through one-to-one and group conversations.

For the partnerships review, we interviewed key stakeholders to understand the range of partnerships ClientEarth is engaged in and the purpose they serve. Referencing Collaborate’s frameworks for partnership working (including the newly published A Guide to Collaboration), we advised on how to maximise the effectiveness of collaboration through partnership.

We then led a series of mapping workshops to embed a systems approach in their work. In these workshops, participants identified a part of the system they work in—such as the energy system—from which to begin exploring. They identified the relevant actors, their perspectives, values, and the power they have in relation to each other. Getting under the surface of the system in this way helps to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions holding problems in place and identify where energy for — or resistance to — change is located.

We then explored options for how ClientEarth could intervene in the system and where it could draw on partners for support. After the workshops, we developed a workbook to support CE to continue to use these exercises themselves as they develop their strategy and deepen their system practice.

Lastly, we delivered three capabilities-building workshops to build knowledge of system thinking approaches, and a comfort and familiarity with complexity and uncertainty. These were framed around a model that emphasises the value of observing events, activities and patterns; interpreting why things are happening as they are and forming hypotheses; and intervening to create change, before then beginning the cycle again by observing the difference the intervention made.

Impact and Learning

ClientEarth are bravely embarking on a considerable shift in the way they work — integrating systems approaches at the heart of their theory of change. There is widespread support within the organisation for this shift, but, as ever with change, there is an uncertainty about what the future will look like and how it will affect individuals’ work. Our work supported people to navigate uncertainty implicit in this shift, and to use their agency to collectively shape the future by centring learning and sharing insights across the team. You can find out more about this approach in our Human Learning Systems report

Faced with the scale and complexity of the systems generating outcomes people want to change can often feel overwhelming. A common response is to seek the certainty of being able to see and understand the whole system at once. Sadly, this is often impossible as the system changes faster than it can be mapped, or is too complex to capture in a readable way. We found that by starting with a small part of a system, and exploring deeply rather than broadly, we were able to uncover insights relevant not only to that small area but more widely. Working in this way also served to strengthen systems thinking ‘muscles’ and enabled people to apply this way of seeing and sense-making to their everyday experiences.

As an organisation, we sometimes struggle to take a step back and explore areas that aren’t as familiar. How you coached us on this journey and explained not only what we should do but why, and responded to things that emerged along the way, was all helpful for indicating where we needed to focus our attention. You helped us understand what was important from your perspective and presented us with options to weigh trade-offs. Through skilled and thoughtful facilitation, you surfaced meaningful insights and steered us efficiently to where we needed to go. You guided us effectively and in a supportive way.

Michelle Man
Head of Impact and Learning, ClientEarth