What is #systemschange exactly? Why and when do we need it?

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readApr 17, 2024

Join the discussion on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/antlerboy_systemschange-leadership-theory-and-practice-activity-7186265403994591232-izN3?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_desktop

Shaun O’Neil set me this ‘exam question’ when I requested some recently.

The problem is there’s no single definition.

Many people use it in the context of climate change to signify a need for a total shift in our organising system — capitalism, the way we do governance, the way we live our lives. Just small things ;-)

Others talk about it as a way to achieve equity, to reshape society for the better in specific ways, and others still talk about it as a change method for large-scale change in ‘big systems’ (say, in the NHS).

Because it comes from a different background than ‘systems thinking’, systems change usually has a fairly basic definition of ‘the system’ — usually seeing it as a very concrete (but ill-defined) thing, rather than a way of understanding. And often there is a mix of social change tactics (sometimes drawing on ecological metaphors), necessary work on managing and changing ourselves to change the system, and a belief that the processes we use to change things are fateful for the system we bring into being. (For example, that if we have a decentralised, democratic change process, we will end up with a decentralised, democratic ‘system’).

It makes sense that we need to think about systems change when the status quo is failing in some important way — not just surface level but fundamental #transformationand #innovation required. And when there are truly interconnected challenges and #complexity involved.

It should be about having a really deep, felt understanding of how things are working at present, and including all the perspectives and contexts and incentives and drivers of the different people and groups involved — so not just seeing a ‘mechanistic’ system ‘out there’, but understanding that many people are involved. And finding ways to constructively challenge the underlying frameworks of rules and power dynamics.

In essence, systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place. It’s about grappling with complex structures, behaviours, relationships, and thinking patterns to incite change that’s transformational and sustainable.

It’s the antithesis of tinkering — it’s about reimagining and reconstructing the systems that, for too long, have perpetuated inefficiencies and inequities.

And it’s usually needed over a very long period of time, with great sensitivity to moments that are ripe for change — typically at points of crisis or when there’s a collective awakening that the current path is unsustainable.

Whether it’s in public services, business models, or global economies, it asks us to step back, reflect on the interdependencies and, quite often, to redraw the boundaries and rethink the identities we once took for granted.

This is all I can fit in a LinkedIn update, and probably begs more questions than it answers — feel free to ask more if interested!