We’re Beating Systems Change to Death

Essay by Kevin Starr: “Systems change! Just saying the words aloud makes me feel like one of the cognoscenti, one of the elite who has transcended the ways of old-school philanthropy. Those two words capture our aspirations of lasting impact at scale: systems are big, and if you manage to change them, they’ll keep spinning out impact forever. Why would you want to do anything else?

There’s a problem, though. “Systems analysis” is an elegant and useful way to think about problems and get ideas for solutions, but “systems change” is accelerating toward buzzword purgatory. It’s so sexy that everyone wants to use it for everything. …

But when you rummage through the growing literature on systems change thinking, there are in fact a few recurring themes. One is the need to tackle the root causes of any problem you take on. Another is that a broad coalition must be assembled ASAP. Finally, the most salient theme is the notion that the systems involved are transformed as a result of the work (although in many of the examples I read about, it’s not articulated clearly just what system is being changed).

Taken individually or as a whole, these themes point to some of the ways in which systems change is a less-than-ideal paradigm for the work we need to get done:

1. It’s too hard to know to what degree systems change is or isn’t happening. It may be the case that “not everything that matters can be counted,” but most of the stuff that matters can, and it’s hard to get better at something if you’re unable to measure it. But these words of a so-called expert on systems change measurement are typical of what I’ve seen in in the literature: “Measuring systems change is about detecting patterns in the connections between the parts. It is about qualitative changes in the structure of the system, about its adaptiveness and resilience, about synergies emerging from collective efforts—and more…”

Like I said, it’s too hard to know to what is or isn’t happening.

2. “Root cause” thinking can—paradoxically—bog down progress. “Root cause” analysis is a common feature of most systems change discussions, and it’s a wonderful tool to generate ideas and avoid unintended consequences. However, broad efforts to tackle all of a problem’s root causes can turn anything into a complicated, hard-to-replicate project. It can also make things look so overwhelming as to result in a kind of paralysis. And however successful a systems change effort might be, that complication makes it hard to replicate, and you’re often stuck with a one-off project….(More)”.