The Elephant in the Systems Change Room

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  • Alina Siegfried is a storyteller, narrative strategist, spoken word artist and systems change advocate based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is passionate about the use of personal stories and narrative to shift culture towards a more regenerative, equitable and just world.

Why systems change needs to start with culture change

There’s a scene in the HBO show Silicon Valley that parodies a large-scale tech conference. As each guy (and it’s always a guy) takes to the stage to present their latest tech solution, they all weave into their speech how they are “making the world a better place” through a variety of obscure high-tech products and software services. As with any half-decent parody, the meme is firmly grounded in reality, with the frame of changing the world being hugely popular in the real Silicon Valley and beyond. Leaving aside the irony that many Silicon Valley tech companies are doing little beyond finding ways to make life marginally more streamlined or entertaining for a privileged few, the pursuit of purpose within business is gaining significant traction.

The rise of social enterprise and impact entrepreneurship presents those who want to create change with the opportunity to embed social or environmental change at the very core of their company. In the UK alone, social enterprise contributed£60 billion to the economy in 2019 representing a little over 2% of GDP. Within large companies, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) provides an avenue for companies to engage in fair trade, ethical employment practices, philanthropic activities, and charitable work. Third party accreditation systems such B Corporations provide assurance to customers that companies are meeting certain environmental and social performance criteria. Some countries have put in place legal structures that provide companies with a mandate to measure progress and impact against a wider set of indicators than purely shareholder profit.

These mechanisms are a good starting point, but represent only one level of systems change — that is on the explicit, structural level. By and large, these models leave the underlying root causes of many of our systemic problems unchallenged. That’s not to say that they are not an important piece of the puzzle, but to date they have received a disproportionate share of the funding, attention, and brain power that is required to create lasting solutions to systemic problems.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, there has been a workplace trend towards specialisation in one particular area of knowledge. There is a distinct economic advantage for those who know more about one single area of focus than their competitors. This has been a great boon for productivity, but it has split the world up into silos. With a deep knowledge of only one part of an interconnected system, we start to to view the world as a collection of distinct and discrete elements which can be manipulated with little or no effect on the others.

This is of course, the polar opposite to the way that the natural world operates. The world is built up of intricate systems. Natural systems and human-built systems, physical systems and psychological systems. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and everything exists in the context of everything else. It seems an obvious thing to point out, but when it comes to the work of solving challenges that affect humans, other life, and the planet which we call home, we are not that great at recognising the system within which a challenge exists. We do not properly diagnose the issue to understand the scope of the problem. We treat the symptoms, not the cause. In our rush towards developing solutions for the myriad problems that we face, our lack of appreciation for the wider systems within which a problem exists can lead to ineffectual solutions at best, or actually exacerbating harm at worst.

Complex social, environmental and economic problems such as climate change, rising inequality, racism, political polarisation, and the destruction of our home planet haven’t arisen in a vacuum. Yet too often, we treat them as if they have, failing to recognise the multitude of factors at play, the many stakeholders involved, the histories and biases that they bring, and interconnections between all the moving parts of a big, messy, tangle of a system. These are the factors that are seldom taken into consideration when a bright, young entrepreneur suggests that their singular product or idea is going to change the world.

In their recent report, The Water of Systems Change, consulting company FSG neatly summarise six conditions of systems change, as outlined in the diagram below:

A great deal of effort has been made by organisations, companies, governments and philanthropic foundations to address the structural changes on the top row of the inverted triangle. This is the level at which social enterprise, B Corps and CSR are operating. Likewise, when philanthropic funds are directed towards creating positive change in the world, they are often directed at developing policies and practices that better support people and the environment. These are of course, where we see the most tangible and immediate results. You buy a pair of Toms shoes, and know that a pair is being given to a child in need. It’s simple. Obvious. You as the consumer know the fruits of your labour, immediately. On the other side of the exchange, the company can present their impact with a neat, objective metric in their end of year reporting, keeping funders and shareholders happy.

What is less tangible to see in practice are the changes on the lower two levels of the triangle. Changes in social dynamics in our workplaces, communities, and societies are much harder to measure and report on, as are modes of thought. Many organisations and individuals who wish to create and support change fail to see these elements as relevant to them and their organisation. Consequently the work of relational change and transformational change have largely gone neglected — which is why despite many well intentioned efforts at transforming our lives and economies to be more just, equitable and sustainable, we are failing to make headway on our most complex global problems.

We give free shoes to poor children in foreign countries, without questioning how our unbalanced economic structures, climate-altering consumption habits, and narratives of western supremacy have contributed to those children being in need in the first place. It is akin to sucking on cough drops to treat our lung cancer.

That’s not to say that these models don’t have an impact — they certainly do. But in the grand scheme of the complex challenges the world is facing, the impacts are superficial.

Strategic storytelling and narrative work are a key tool to start truly shifting the needle towards relational and transformational change. The alarming rise of populism and political polarity across a number of countries in the last few years is both a symptom and cause of people with different viewpoints not talking to or understanding each other. We simply do not know each other’s stories. The stories we read and see on the news are painted with the bias of whoever is telling them. We are increasingly living within bubbles of people who think like us. Social media algorithms have played a huge part in shaping these bubbles, which are a perfect example of how power structures come into play. Facebook has become so large and all powerful, that it is literally changing the social fabric of our societies and the functioning of our democracies. It’s a rare instance of an online tech product actually changing the world, and in a way that is increasingly to the detriment of happy, healthy lives.

Facebook is literally changing the world. This guy, not so much.

For true and lasting systems change at the relational level, we need to develop solutions in equal partnership with all actors, stakeholders and those most affected by a problem. The Collective Impact model of systems change is one useful tool, that brings together diverse groups and individuals to get buy-in to a shared common agenda and systems of measurement. By meeting regularly, engaging in mutually reinforcing activities, staying in constant communication, stories and experiences of those operating one part of a complex system can be shared with others in an adjacent part of the system. If we use the example of lifting inner-city communities out of poverty, then we might have social workers, healthcare workers, municipal planners, religious and community leaders, teachers, nutritionists, local business owners, employers, sports leaders, artists, transport workers and local residents around the table, to name a few. Each will have different stories of how they see change unfolding in their community. The key is for them to all be talking to each other.

The mental modes that sit on the bottom of the triangle are the deeply held beliefs and assumptions that influence the ways that we think, speak, and behave. These drivers of transformational change are the narratives underpinning our lives and societies, they are the taken-for-granted ideas that inform “the way things are”. These are the most difficult to change as many of our dominant societal narratives are largely subconscious and ubiquitous. They are collective stories that we have inherited by virtue of simply existing within a certain cultural context, and that we subtly reinforce through our daily actions, words, and behaviours.

Collectively held narratives are the foundations of culture. Social psychology has long told us that the human brain responds to story, framing and narrative far more readily than we respond to facts, figures and reasoned arguments.

On a rational level, we know from the numbers that climate change is a real threat to our livelihoods, our future food supply, our freshwater resources, global geopolitical stability, and the natural systems that enable life on Earth. But appeals to our head are useless, when we are currently battling a predominant narrative within our western culture that implicitly says it’s okay and quite normal to use the gifts of nature as our own personal “resources” regardless of the dire consequences, and exploit marginalised people and their environments in far off lands in order to have cheap goods. This is the narrative of modern capitalism, the mental model that underpins our economies. The sense of our personal inability to make a dent in this deep, pervasive narrative results in feelings of anger, despair, grief, guilt and feelings of inertia.

But the good news is that we do know how we might actually create lasting systems change that addresses the root causes of our problems. We need to combine the obvious and tangible impacts of green businesses, social enterprise, and progressive social and environmental policy with several other other strategies:

  • The adoption of models of change that encourage cooperation, communication and understanding between diverse stakeholders who may have vastly different interests and points of view

  • The transparent acknowledgement of skewed power dynamics within our organisations, governments, and communities, whether formal or informal, and dismantling of those power dynamics through better models of decision-making, leadership and relationship building. It is key that power imbalances are removed without the redirection of those imbalances towards new groups or individuals. It does no good for a new group of society to take on new power and agency, only to pass on their former oppression to somebody else.

  • The deep and unapologetic questioning of the narratives that underpin our lives, combined with the curious and non-judgemental examination of how they are or aren’t serving us. The first step is awareness. From there, we can work towards developing new societal narratives that better work for people and the planet.

These changes will not happen overnight, and because they are much harder to measure than the structural shifts that support systems change, a great deal of patience, faith and trust is required. These changes represent the deeply personal work of examining how we relate to one another and the very essence of how we think. But we don’t always have to do this work alone. The collective awakening that many people around the world have had this year as we’ve experienced a global pandemic, can serve as a catalyst for change. Already, we are questioning many of the underlying narratives upon which our lives, our countries, and our global economy is built.

It is hard work, but ultimately necessary. Without these deep transformational and relational changes, our efforts to create lasting change through policy, philanthropy, charitable work, conscious business, or the next big “world-changing” technology, are little more than an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

Alina Siegfried is a storyteller, narrative strategist, spoken word artist and systems change advocate based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is passionate about the use of personal stories and narrative to shift culture towards a more regenerative, equitable and just world. Alina is currently writing her first book which is an inspirational memoir on the use of storytelling and narrative to support systems change. You can learn more on her website and sign up here for book updates. This article originally appeared on Medium.

Top photo by David Clode

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  • Alina Siegfried is a storyteller, narrative strategist, spoken word artist and systems change advocate based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is passionate about the use of personal stories and narrative to shift culture towards a more regenerative, equitable and just world.

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