We use the term systems change a lot. It is what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going through the long weekends. But what is it and how do we know we are doing it?

Daniel Kim, in his excellent Introduction to Systems Thinking, described a system as “any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole that has a specific purpose.” Ok. Pretty academic, but definitions usually are.

For us, the key is at the end of definition, the systems we are interested in are unified wholes and have a specific purposes. The curious bit is that the purpose of many complex systems is harder to grasp than they might appear! Is the purpose of the food system (which we define simply as everything it takes to get food from farm to table) to feed us? To generate well being? To maximize income for farmers? To create profit for food businesses?

This leads us to the first principle of systems change: to change a system you must understand it! This is why we spend a lot of time with groups in a variety of systems ‘sensing’ processes ranging from gathering stakeholder perspectives, to learning journeys to see systems in action, to sophisticated systems maps that diagram relationships and potential levers for change.

The second principle of systems change is that it focuses on root causes and not symptoms. A good case to think about are the strategies we use to reduce hunger. Food banks are critical to assuring many us are not going to bed hungry every night. But hunger is a symptom–a symptom of poverty, of how we handle mental illness, and of our concept of what a good society is. Compare this with strategies that permanently improve prospects of individuals: investments in early childhood education, anti-dropout programs for opportunity youth, or childhood savings accounts. All of these have the potential for creating long-term shifts in earnings and wealth that more directly addresses poverty systemically. You would never want to shortchange anti-hunger work, but when we can place it in a larger systems change framework we are likely to create a set of interlocking strategies that both address hunger and poverty.

This second principle holds the key to understanding success–systems change can be seen by shifts in long-term indicators. Poverty, educational attainment, numbers of small farms are these kinds of indicators.

Systems change is certainly not easy! It takes study, patience, and humility. And it is way worth the effort.

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