Earlier this month Collaborate CIC and Save the Children UK brought together people from a range of sectors (from voluntary and community groups to councils and funders) to share their experiences of what it means to apply systems thinking at a local level.

The event emerged from questions that we and Save the Children had been thinking about: while it’s clear the concepts of systems change and systems thinking are gaining increasing currency in the social sector, is there a shared sense of what this means at a local level? Is there commonality in how systems approaches are applied locally? And crucially, do people feel supported in pursuing this approach?

Talking with people more widely, it was clear that we weren’t the only ones grappling with these questions, and there was an appetite for coming together to share experiences and insights.

The conversations on the day were insightful and challenging. They affirmed that systems change is not just ‘flavour of the month’ but an approach that can truly transform how we develop and deliver approaches to involving and supporting communities, including what we think of as successful outcomes and our own roles in working towards these.

Throughout the session people articulated a number of commonalities that they felt were central components to their systems work:

There are a set of principles and behaviours that underpin a local systems change approach. These included:

– working across traditional organisational and service boundaries to develop more holistic responses that tackle root causes of issues;

– building not only relationships but networks and coalitions that touch on different points of the ‘system’;

– embracing complexity: accepting that change is emergent

– moving away from standardised solutions and ‘tick box’ approaches to genuinely respond to people’s individual circumstances;

– meaningfully involve the people and communities you work with;

– creating spaces for honest conversations and taking time to build trust — essential foundations for systemic change;

– recognising we are all part of the system we are trying to affect

Systems thinking offers a new way of tackling seemingly intractable issues. Many attendees felt that systems thinking was helpful as it opened up new ways of working and widen the lens as to what is possible. Specifically, people felt systems thinking helped because it:

– allows you to map the ‘eco-system’ and engage people who may not normally be involved but have much to contribute;

– is an active ‘live’ process — forcing us to continually review and evolve, with the process often as important as the outcome;

– removes judgement and adds mutual accountability by focusing on shared goals;

– starts the conversation at the right point: about people not money.

A programme can evolve into a ‘systems change’ approach.

Not everyone who attend the session started their projects by thinking about systems change. Some initiatives began more organically, for example as a way to build community cohesion and capacity. However, as the work evolved it became clear that by being human-centred, acknowledging the complexity of people’s lives, working from the starting point of relationships rather than services, and building a networked approach they were in fact taking a systems approach.

The conversations also highlighted a series of challenges and blockers to enabling systems work to reach its full potential. Attendees felt many of these needed more dedicated time to really unpack. These included:

– “The wider system needs addressing” — some felt that although they were working in new ways they had reached a ceiling or were oppressed by systems that sat above and around them e.g. commissioning models, national drivers, targets, and operational frameworks.

– “We need to understand what’s driving the wrong cultures and behaviours” — for some there was a sense they were mavericks, but that for their work to effect the change they wanted, attention had to be paid to the culture and behaviours of their entire organisation.

– “How do we communicate this work?“ — if we are to move away from traditional outcome measures to broader and more adaptive processes of learning then how do you give people confidence in a process that cannot always be neatly quantified?

– Policy and practice need to speak to each other — many felt that if the system change work they were exploring was to develop and sustain, it required progress at multiple levels: strategic and operational, policy and practice.

At the end of the session we asked the group what type of support, if any, they would find useful in the future. There were three clear messages:

– A dedicated space to share & learn together;

– A focus on ‘getting under the skin’ of the work to explore how we can all deepen our practice;

– A way to create a broad network of those working in applying systems thinking/change to real life challenges.

As society continues to face complex social challenges and the traditional model of ‘supply and demand’ fails to meet pressing needs, organisations and individuals will continue to search for innovative, sustainable and effective approaches. It seems that systems change at a local level is offering people the tools and to test new approaches. But working in this way is difficult, it requires persistence and, as one person said on the day “we really have to hold our nerve”.

With Save the Children UK, we are exploring how we could continue to support groups such as this, specifically those are actually at the coal-face, trying to unpick traditional models of support and support better outcomes for citizens.

If you’d like to know more about this learning community and future work in this space, please contact [email protected]