Making systems work—whether in health care, education, climate change, making a pathway out of poverty—is the greatest task of our generation.
—ATUL GAWANDE, “How Do We Heal Medicine?,” TED2012
The systemic challenges we face call for a systemic approach, in which we address issues from many angles, simultaneously, as part of a coordinated effort. It is simply not enough to scale the work of individual leaders, programs, or organizations. Creating change at the rate we need is going to require a whole new level of planetary collaboration.
Systems change is the process of reforming or transforming the structures, relationships, policies, power dynamics, narratives, and norms in a given system in order to create positive social or environmental results. A system is a group of interacting or interdependent elements forming a unified whole.1 Systems may overlap—for instance, in the connections between health care and housing. And systems can be nested within other systems—a classroom is nested within a school, which is nested within a school district, which is nested within a state’s education system.
In Who Do We Choose to Be?, Margaret Wheatley shares that she’s basically given up on wholesale global systems change. The scale and complexity of the issues we face are overwhelming, and changemakers are burning out in droves. So, she reframed her aspiration, and so have we. Wheatley wants to create what she calls “islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, relate, and persevere.”2 Instead of islands of sanity, I like to think of them as pockets of possibility. These are the places all around the world where people are coming together to plant seeds for a positive future.
We may not be able to change the whole system all at once. But we can create positive changes locally. And when those local changes are connected together through networks—when they are coordinated, learn from one another, and reinforce one another—change can happen at larger and larger scales.
In any complex system, there are underlying structures, norms, and beliefs responsible for creating the presenting symptoms we see every day—the events and crises that flood the news and occupy most of our attention. More often than not, these underlying issues are intimately intertwined with structural racism, sexism, and other oppressive dynamics. Therefore, it is critical that any effort to create systems change aim “to transform the underlying power dynamics, narratives, and histories that built these structures and enable them to thrive,” states the social change group Change Elemental.3 Otherwise, if they do not, efforts are likely to reinforce existing inequities or merely replace one form of inequity with another.
In the absence of a deliberate process to make sense of the system it seeks to change, a network might inadvertently maintain most of its focus on the most obvious symptoms and miss important details about what is causing those symptoms in the first place. An essential step to creating systemic change, then, is to develop a deep, nuanced, and meaningful understanding of the past, present, and potential future states of the system, as well as the root causes that are driving the system’s behavior.4 This involves surfacing diverse perspectives, developing a broader understanding of the actors and organizations involved, and examining external trends and forces. It also involves considering the local context, learning about the histories of the place or system, identifying political and power dynamics, and unveiling hardwired assumptions. In the process, lots of questions are asked and answered, and patterns are surfaced. Relevant actors, forces, and flows are identified. Participants share their piece of the puzzle, and the big picture comes into view, illuminating new connections and opportunities to create change.
A number of different techniques can help groups develop a shared understanding of the past, present, and potential future states of the system.5 For example, developing a historical timeline helps to surface factors and events that have had significant influence. System mapping may reveal critical leverage points—places where targeted action can produce outsized impacts. Scenario planning imagines possible futures by exploring how certain trends and uncertainties might play out. Visit the Converge Network Toolkit to access facilitation guides for Constructing a Historical Timeline, Mapping the System, and Exploring Future Scenarios.
Regardless of the specific techniques you use, any good process calls for bringing people together who are directly affected by the issue at hand and listening to diverse perspectives. Consider the case of Food Solutions New England, an action network that seeks to transform the regional food system across six US states. Early in its formation, members identified the need to put racial equity at the center of the network’s work, given how issues of food and race are tightly woven together.6 With this understanding, members became conscious of the fact that any process to make sense of the system would be heavily influenced by the diversity (or lack thereof) of the voices at the table.
For some time, there had been a desire in the network to develop a system map to reveal the factors that influence the New England food system and to identify the relationships among actors. Before mapping the system, however, the network made the decision to wait until it had engaged more underrepresented groups, including people of color, young people, and food chain workers. Otherwise, essential perspectives would be missing, and the resulting map would be dangerously incomplete.
With the benefit of increased diversity within their network, the system map that was ultimately created was much more comprehensive in capturing the nuanced dynamics of how the region’s food system actually worked. In turn, the map proved to be valuable in helping participants loosen their grip on their individual organizational missions and see the system more holistically. The process also led the network to identify a set of high-leverage priorities for their collective work—including a coordinated communications strategy and a shared set of policy goals—which continue to guide the network’s actions to this day.
About five years into the cultivation of the 100Kin10 network, catalyst and leader Talia Milgrom-Elcott had a daunting realization: their efforts were not fundamentally changing the system, even if they achieved their goal of getting one hundred thousand excellent STEM teachers into America’s classrooms in ten years, which they were on track to do. The network’s more than three hundred participating organizations were working on many different facets of the challenge, but they weren’t adding up to changes that would fundamentally shift the state of the STEM education system over the long term. “All this amazing work was happening, but if and when we reached our goal, we were just going to have to start all over again,” recalls Milgrom-Elcott. “All the work we were doing was on top of the cracks of a broken system.”
So, Milgrom-Elcott and her colleagues set out to identify the leverage points that could shift the system for good. “We needed to understand all the reasons we have a persistent teacher shortage in STEM, because you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. I only understand my slice of the problem, and the same goes for everyone else. It’s only when we stitch together the different perspectives that we even have a shot at understanding the whole.”
To do so, they launched an extended process to listen to as many people as they could to understand why it was so hard to get and keep great teachers, especially in STEM, and especially for the highest-need schools.7 “We learned that there were actually more than one hundred reasons, and people were working on many of them but not all of them,” says Milgrom-Elcott. “There were things that we heard only from teachers that no one else shared. People making the policy decisions, regulations, and structural decisions weren’t seeing the same challenges that teachers were seeing at all.”
To narrow its focus, 100Kin10 invited teachers and other education experts to share their perspectives on how the challenges related to one another. After more than 750 people shared their thoughts, 100Kin10 was able to generate the system map shown in figure 9.1. The map revealed seven areas where different challenges were highly interconnected. It also revealed specific “catalyst challenges” within each focus area that were particularly influential. These catalyst challenges pointed to leverage points in the system—especially impactful opportunities capable of creating widespread change. As a result of this process, 100Kin10 was able to articulate the following seven focus areas and their associated leverage points:
FIGURE 9.1. 100Kin10’s system map of the “grand challenges” facing STEM education today. Each challenge is represented by a node, and links are created when two challenges are related to one another. With this data, social network analysis revealed seven clusters of highly interconnected challenges, which yielded the network’s seven focus areas. For an interactive version of this map and a detailed description of the process used to develop it, visit grandchallenges.100kin10.org.
• Teacher leadership: Recruiting school leaders who create positive work environments
• Professional growth: Generating greater teacher collaboration and professional development during the school day
• Elementary STEM: Increasing teacher-preparation faculty with specific expertise in elementary math and science
• Preparation: Conducting statewide tracking of STEM teacher supply and demand
• Prestige: Providing scholarships or loan forgiveness for STEM undergraduates who become STEM teachers
• Instructional materials: Improving districts’ identification of high-quality engineering curriculum
• Value of science, technology, and engineering: Expanding the number and range of STEM courses required in high schools
With a discrete set of priorities to focus on, all participants could start aiming their efforts—and their organizational resources—in the same direction; all their various efforts would finally become mutually reinforcing. Participants also began self-organizing into project teams to define and implement strategies for action. In one example, a project team took up the challenge of shifting states’ focus toward retention strategies, not just recruitment strategies as is most common, and providing school leaders with practices for improving workplace culture.
Project teams were supported by the network and led by passionate participants. They provided a mechanism for bringing together actors from across the system to collaborate on specific, time-bound challenges. As one team leader expressed, “Before project teams, I didn’t know any other way to pull together people from across the nation that could have an impact on the teaching profession. I put my idea out there and ended up with lots of great partners.”8 Specific tips for forming and leading project teams are provided in chapter 10.
The effort to identify leverage points also led to an unexpected result: a massive increase in participant engagement. “When, as a network, you can choose to focus on a few critical opportunities—not because you or I thought they were the right places to focus, or because a panel of experts thought they were the right places, but because the whole community came together to identify them—it’s so mobilizing,” says Milgrom-Elcott. Today 100Kin10 is on track to reach its goal of one hundred thousand excellent STEM teachers in ten years, and it has raised more than $130 million to support its participants in working toward significant reform of the system.
In Change for the Audacious, Steve Waddell outlines three strategies to create change: incrementally, through reformation, and through transformation.9 Incremental change seeks to improve performance within the existing rules of the system. It involves building on the things that are already happening and sharing learnings, experiences, capacity, and expertise. This can be achieved by coordinating actions across a network, as outlined in the previous chapter.
Fundamentally changing systems, however, requires reformation or transformation. Reformation aims to change the way a system works, altering its rules, structures, beliefs, and behaviors. Transformation is the work of creating a new system altogether. While identifying and acting on critical leverage points may chart a path toward reformation or transformation, there are two other particularly potent strategies that a network may pursue: shifting social norms and growing a movement. In both cases, impact networks are powerful catalysts.
Social norms are the unspoken rules of behavior that keep the current system intact. On their own, most norms are not inherently good or bad. However, norms can be harmful if they are not explicitly named and proactively chosen.
As Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun write in their Dismantling Racism workbook, “Many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multicultural organization.”10 When norms remain unacknowledged, they reinforce aspects of the dominant culture that can suppress diverse ways of knowing, inhibit expression, and violate the dignity of those from nondominant groups.
For example, in the United States, as well as in many other parts of the world, dominant values born from a culture of white supremacy and capitalism, such as individualism, competition, and structure, lead to social norms such as dependence on a singular leader, emphasis on individual achievement, and reliance on predictable rules (written and unwritten). When these norms exist as the unexamined default for an organization or network, contrasting norms—such as lifting up collective efforts, promoting inclusive both-and thinking over polarizing either-or thinking, and embracing emergence—are minimized or excluded.
An essential practice for impact networks, then, is to consciously choose and live into norms that reflect a network mindset and promote their values and principles. When this happens, it can change everything about how a system operates. “Shifting our way of being is our tangible outcome,” says Taj James of Movement Strategy Center. “Systems change comes from big groups making big shifts in being.”11
Early in its development, the leaders of Resonance Network made the decision not to replicate hierarchical ways of doing things. Dominant hierarchical norms were in direct conflict with its vision for a world rooted in deep relationship, vibrant community, and connection to the planet. The network way of working took some time for people to get used to, but it paid off in the end. “At first, people were looking for who’s in charge, looking for top-down decision-making,” remembers Alexis Flanagan, a leader of the network. “There were some trade-offs—we built more slowly and more intentionally than a lot of stakeholders would have liked us to—but it was necessary for us to establish the culture and the practices that have benefited us and gotten us to where we are right now.”
Shifting more fully into new social norms requires ongoing attention. “We constantly come back to deep, deep reflection on habits, and what we can practice instead,” says Flanagan. “We believe that intentional practice is a way to interrupt these habits and transform them.”12
Once a network has done the work of articulating and shifting its own social norms in practice, it can turn its attention toward helping replicate those new norms throughout the larger systems of which it is a part. Networks are perfectly positioned to do this, as they are “the primary pathways for the spread of new social norms,” according to Damon Centola, sociologist and author of How Behavior Spreads.13
When networks live the change they wish to see, they can create new patterns of behavior that spread outward like ripples on a pond. As new adopters join in, they align messaging and further reinforce the growing influence of the network, and as a result the change continues to replicate well beyond the initial group. Research shows that once 25 percent of the actors in a system have adopted a given norm, a tipping point is reached, triggering a shift in the rest of the population.14
Consider the norms that dictate how most hospital systems in the United States treat patients with serious illnesses. Seriously ill patients approaching the end of life are commonly categorized as requiring hospice, they are kept in the hospital as inpatients, and their physical pain is managed with medication until they pass away. This was the adopted norm at the UCSF Health system as well. That is, until new norms around palliative care were championed by Steve Pantilat, MD, and his colleagues.
Pantilat, founding director of the UCSF Palliative Care Program and president of the board of the national Palliative Care Quality Collaborative, knew that palliative care involves addressing not only the physical pain that patients experience but also the social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual distress that come with serious illnesses. To help spread this new norm of care throughout UCSF Health, my colleague David Sawyer and I worked with Pantilat to catalyze the Coordination of Care Network, an action network that connected the system’s twelve sites and ten health disciplines interested in palliative care.
The network convened dozens of leaders from across the system for the very first time. They worked together to build the case for palliative care by demonstrating that these new norms for treating seriously ill patients result in dramatically better outcomes for both the patients and the hospital system. The network also offered palliative care education to providers and identified champions who could help boost the profile of palliative care services. While the network was only one part of a comprehensive and multiyear effort by Pantilat and colleagues to spread palliative care throughout UCSF Health, it played an important role in helping to coordinate messaging, engage a broad group of stakeholders, and build momentum.
A few years after the formation of the Coordination of Care Network, UCSF established the Division of Palliative Medicine to provide a permanent hub that will continue to promote and coordinate palliative care across the health system. In addition to its palliative care services, the division provides educational programs for both students and clinicians, conducts research to improve the quality of care provided to seriously ill patients, and has become a key resource for teams that want to establish and grow their own palliative care services. Though there is still work to be done, “whole-person palliative care” is quickly becoming the norm at UCSF Health, transforming the health care experience of seriously ill patients and their families.15
For generations, movements have adopted a network approach to maintain cohesion and scale their impact. Research from Leslie Crutchfield, author of How Change Happens, found that the most successful social movements incorporate a decentralized structure that fosters connection and coordination across the movement, rather than a top-down hierarchical structure that dictates the actions of its chapters. The organizations and leaders most central to the growth of these movements, writes Crutch-field, conceive of themselves “not as commander at the helm of an army, but rather a coordinator at the center of a network.”16 They “purposely push power out to the grassroots, vesting authority in local chapters rather than controlling from the top.”17
This is the function of movement networks. Multiple learning and action networks (sometimes called chapters) work autonomously to create change locally, and they are connected together to facilitate communication, coordinate actions, and catalyze change on a broader scale. As a network-of-networks, the movement network maintains a greater reach and larger influence than most impact networks can achieve on their own.
The California Landscape Stewardship Network (CLSN), for example, connects thirty environmental networks together to build collective power and advocate for policy change at a statewide level. As is typical among movement networks, the CLSN relies on regional networks, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, the One Tam initiative, and the Orange Coast Collaborative, to make decisions and take action relevant to their local context. At the same time, the CLSN combines the forces of its members to advance statewide policy efforts such as the Cutting Green Tape initiative, which is removing counterproductive barriers to restoring, enhancing, and preserving natural resources across California.
The success of the Otpor movement in Serbia provides a good case study in how social movements can adopt a network approach to bolster their efforts. Otpor was integral to the ouster of Serbia’s strongman ruler Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 (Otpor means “resistance” in Serbian).
Before Otpor was established, there were frequent mass protests attempting to overthrow Milosevic in the 1990s. Drawing more than one hundred thousand people to the streets, these demonstrations created a whirlwind of energy that seemed poised to create lasting change. At the time, however, the movement did not have an organizing structure that could gradually increase pressure over a sustained period of time. When Milosevic consolidated his power further and brutally punished those who opposed him, the movement faded.
Learning from these setbacks, a group of activists who had participated in the earlier demonstrations formed Otpor. As a movement network, Otpor balanced cohesiveness with spontaneous mobilization. Local chapters were united by a clear purpose—defeating Milosevic and securing fair and free elections—and they each agreed to a set of well-defined principles that ensured that actions were consistent with the movement as a whole.
Each chapter was free to operate autonomously to carry out demonstrations that best fit its local circumstances, as long as it did so within the bounds of the movement’s shared agreements. As a result, creative demonstrations and acts of resistance popped up around the country in ways that could not be anticipated or stopped by the Serbian government. Because chapters were connected together through the network, they were also able to coordinate nationwide demonstrations, showing up in full force when Milosevic refused to step down after suffering defeat in the election of 2000.
With its network structure, Otpor gained a level of resilience that hierarchies do not enjoy. Milosevic’s usual acts of oppression did not have the same effect they had had just a few years prior, as removing any one Otpor leader or shutting down any one Otpor chapter could not stop the growing power of the movement. Although some key individuals took on greater levels of responsibility, the movement’s leadership was largely distributed throughout the network’s many chapters, and as a result, Otpor had no obvious figureheads that could be targeted and imprisoned.
Otpor also formed relationships with other networks and community groups to reach further into more institutionalized aspects of Serbian society, coordinating its efforts with political parties, civil society groups, and trade unions. This made it much harder for Milosevic to maintain power when multiple pillars of society began to advocate for change in unison.
“Without any internal bureaucracy or centralized authority, Otpor succeeded in creating a cohesive movement identity among tens of thousands of Serbians,” write Mark Engler and Paul Engler in This Is an Uprising.18 The result in Serbia was a cohesive movement that was decentralized yet structured, disruptive yet strategic, spontaneous yet coordinated. With persistent action, Otpor succeeded in overthrowing Milosevic and his authoritarian regime, replacing it with a new democratic system of governance and transforming Serbia forever.
The Iroquois Confederacy, an Indigenous confederation from northeast North America, also known as the Haudenosaunee, is one of the oldest participatory democracies on Earth.19 They have long held the philosophy that in every deliberation it is necessary to “consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come.”20 This is known as the Seventh Generation Principle. Many Indigenous peoples around the world continue to live by this philosophy today.
The Seventh Generation Principle underscores the reality that systems are not reformed or transformed overnight. It takes time. Philosopher Charles Eisenstein has similarly shared that he thinks in terms of a five-hundred-year time scale, “because the root conditions are so deep, and the trauma is so ancient, that it’s just not going to heal overnight. I’m open to it, but I’m not counting on it,” he says.21
With the daunting scale of the challenges we face, it is necessary to balance the urgency that many of us feel to change things right away, with the patience to recognize that creating systemic change is a marathon, not a sprint. “Invest in the millennium,” writes Wendell Berry in A Country of Marriage. “Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.”22
Changes sparked by networks may at first seem slow, or barely visible, because they happen within people and through their connections with one another. The first signs of progress may look only like new relationships, new conversations, and moments of service where one person helps another in seemingly small, one-off ways. Sometimes a network’s early experiments may seem trivial, unlikely to make any major shifts.
But what often goes unnoticed is that in the process of cultivating a network, the system actually is shifting. When networks are cultivated, people and organizations start engaging with one another in new ways. Information and resources begin to flow as never before. People from opposite sides of issues find creative ways to collaborate. A once-fragmented system becomes interconnected, able to respond quickly to crises. New leaders emerge. Healthier norms start to develop and spread. And local actions may grow into a movement, creating a new system altogether.
Fractals in nature give us a clue about how small experiments can ripple out into much larger interventions. Fractals are patterns that repeat to form much larger structures. We see fractals in the repeating shapes that make up snowflakes, the consistent patterns in the fronds of a fern, and the spiral design of a nautilus shell. Fractals teach us to start small, moving from the micro to the macro levels, creating patterns that get larger and larger as they grow.
In this same way, a network can be a model of the future you are creating, an experimental fractal that can replicate through larger systems. “What we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale,” writes adrienne maree brown.23 “We must create patterns that cycle upwards.”24
Impact networks don’t just catalyze change; they are the change. Whenever we strive to bridge divides and build connection for common purpose, we plant seeds that may grow for many generations. We can live the change we wish to see, and networks hold the key.