Adapted image by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Tackling complex social problems requires you to act beyond the boundaries of your organisation to change the systems in which these problems are embedded. In this blog we share what we’ve learned about this difficult work and the behaviours and mindsets it requires.

Collaborate exists to support people at all levels and in public and voluntary sectors to work together to achieve social change. We focus on seeking lasting solutions to complex problems that cut across organisational boundaries and where solutions require a system-wide response.

For example, reducing hospital waiting lists might seem on the surface like an NHS problem. But a key factor is the inflow of patients, which relied on reducing risks to ill health and intervening earlier to stop minor health troubles from worsening. That means there is an important role for local council teams — including housing, public health, social care, planning and regeneration — as well as community and voluntary organisations, businesses, individuals, families and so on.

One major challenge this presents is that mobilising change across a system of different organisations and actors looks and feels quite different to managing change within a single organisation. Working in collaboration with different actors across sectors requires different tools, behaviours and mindsets than those many people have learned to manage change in a single organisation.

Over the last few years, we have been working with groups of change-makers to overcome this challenge: From Local Authority Chief Executives and NHS leaders, to local Active Partnerships officers and community organisations working in criminal justice. We have designed and delivered development programmes, based on learning from our own practice, the experiences of the participants and from various academic traditions.

Sometimes these programs are framed around “system leadership”, but this is often confused with authority, and makes people feel like it’s the role of someone with more power than themselves. So we prefer “system activist”. Becoming a system activist is a strategic choice, a way of mobilising change that anyone can do regardless of their role or the status of their organisation.

We’ve also discovered that while there are a lot of useful theories and tools to support system activism, acquiring knowledge and skills alone is not enough. The personal development and change required is as much about the heart as it is about the head and the hands. Becoming a system activist requires a fundamental change in the way we think and feel about our work and our own role in it.

We have identified seven shifts that we see people make as they become system activists:

  • the first three describe the shift in perspective required to see mobilising change across organisational boundaries as a core part of the work;
  • the next three speak to the skills and behaviours that individuals need to grow and develop as they become more effective at changing systems; and
  • the final shift is about the mindset and emotional connection to sustain this difficult work.

Seven Shifts of the System Activist

From Organisations to Outcomes: System activists see their role as improving outcomes (rather than delivering outputs or targets). They understand that the outcomes they seek are influenced by a large number of factors and actors. These interrelate in ways that can be difficult to see or can change unexpectedly. System activists know that collaboration beyond the boundaries of their role and organisation is a necessary part of improving outcomes and to mobilise change.

From Management to Mobilisation: System activists work across systems and on complex issues. As there often isn’t clear authority structures or well defined tasks, the traditional skills of management and resource allocation are ill-suited to deliver results. They recognise that they cannot rely only on the formal authority of their role, and need to build informal authority to influence and generate action by others.

From Me to We: System activists recognise that change is fundamentally a team sport, that cannot be achieved by one person, or organisation. They know that their perspective on the challenge, and its possible solutions, is partial and limited. They need to draw on a greater diversity of perspectives to begin to understand it. This requires them to develop strong self-awareness; to be able to drop their ego and recognise their biases; and to be curious about those they seek to collaborate with.

From Expert to Explorer: System activists value evidence and expertise but recognise that the challenges often don’t have clear answers, or even agreed questions. They are capable of navigating through uncertainty and confident in adopting a learning approach, and guiding others through that. They keep an open mind, are curious and experimental. They see deeper than just the surface level facts to notice and shift underlying relational power dynamics, values and mental models.

From Delivery to Co-creation: System activists recognise that when your outputs are not delivering the outcomes you want, it is likely futile to try to deliver more or faster. They have the skills to mobilise a range of perspectives and to surface and protect marginalised voices, including those they disagree with. They recognise that disagreement is inevitable and have the ability to harness it productively. System activists distribute power, and put people with lived experience at the heart of decision-making.

From Expectations to Agency: System activists recognise that the patterns, rules and behaviours that have sustained the systems’ old ways of functioning may also need to change. They have the ability to take on new roles, disrupting norms and acting outside of others’ expectations. They have the confidence to take risks and to use their own judgement, while noticing and adapting when the evidence changes.

From Head to Heart: System activists recognise that they are a part of the system they are trying to change. They know that being a system activist may change them as much as it changes anyone else, and they have the courage to bring their full selves to the work. They listen deeply, connect emotionally and form empathetic, compassionate, trusting relationships even under pressure.

We’ve learned that supporting people to make these shifts requires a development in the way we think about teaching and learning. It’s through experiencing these shifts first hand that people are able to internalise them. By observing the dynamics of their own system, and designing better ways to intervene, participants are able to test and evolve their own mindsets and behaviour in real time. Our programmes need to offer space for this exploration, support for innovation, and time to develop comfort with complexity. This is difficult work — for participants and for us — but this more immersive and emotional approach can be transformational. We’ll share more about what that looks like in a future blog.

If your team, organisation, or place is facing challenges mobilising change across the system, we’d be happy to help. Collaborate designs and facilitates highly bespoke system leadership development programmes with a wide range of different partners and people at all levels. Please get in touch with Elle Dodd if you would like to find out more about what that could look like for you.