Systems Change and Leading in the Land of Complexity

Photo of a complex road system made up of many lanes and offramps

In this three-part series GKI’s Chase Keenan shares some of the thinking that emerged from a piece of research done by Chase, Sara Farley, Renee Vuillaume, and Glen Burnett. The aim of this research was to further GKI’s understanding of how systems change, and the role that leadership can play in catalyzing that change. You can read the final output of the project here.  The financial system. The justice system. The education system. The healthcare system. The “insert system here” system. Go into any coffee shop in my neighborhood, Shaw, here in Washington, DC — or any other beacon of gentrification from the Mission District to Moscow or Johannesburg to Williamsburg — and you may overhear a hipster waxing philosophically about needing to “change the system.” But in my experience, when pressed, there’s a limited number of people who can explain what they’re referring to with the term “system.” For most, systems are simply some vague notional construct to lean on when speaking about things that are wrong with the world. That doesn’t mean those hipsters are wrong. It’s often true that those systems they’re speaking out against desperately need to change. However, if our understanding of a system only comes from our recognition that change somewhere on something is needed, how can we ever hope to actually achieve sustainable change? While countless definitions and interpretations exist, at the Global Knowledge Initiative we understand systems as a set of actors, including both individuals and institutions; interactions between those actors; and, an enabling environment that effects those actors (consisting of infrastructure, laws, cultural norms, etc.). All of these ingredients (actors, interactions, and enabling environment) are bound together in a distinct way that makes it (the system) perform specific functions and sets it apart from the rest of the world. With these four components — actors, interactions, enabling environment, and boundaries — we can analyze and understand any type of system under the sun. We also start to see that systems are all around us, manifesting in all sorts of ways, from very […]

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Evaluation 2017 Conference Reflections: The Importance of Systems Thinking

Eval 2017 Logo

The American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) Evaluation 2017 Conference brought together evaluators from around world for a week of exciting dialogue and hands-on learning experiences. The presiding AEA President, Kathryn Newcomer, presented this year’s conference theme, “From Learning to Action,” which explored the many ways “our community can learn from evaluation to create better practices and outcomes.” The Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI)’s Chief Operating Officer, Sara Farley, and Senior Program Officer, Katie Bowman, led a conference session on November 9 that focused on using collaborative systems mapping tools to track and analyze change in complex systems over time. The international development sector has seen a growing focus on systems thinking and systems practice in recent years, and this focus showed up as a major theme in the Evaluation 2017 conference. AEA President Newcomer notes, “I think the systems thinking portion at [Evaluation 2017] was the fastest growing program and it shows that it’s something you need in your toolkit to design evaluations and programs.” “I think systems thinking will become as natural as brushing your teeth in the morning. I can’t imagine anyone not thinking about systems when practicing evaluation. It’s normal science now.” When speaking with Newcomer, she stressed the importance of using systems approaches for program design and evaluation. Furthermore, she recognized the value of embracing a “mixology” of systems tools. She explained that there is no one best tool, and users should combine different systems tools to evaluate complex systems and design effective interventions. Regardless of the tools used, it’s clear that a vast and growing number of international development professionals recognize how critical systems approaches are for maximizing sustainable impact, due diligence, and evaluative thinking throughout the program cycle. As Newcomer put it: “I think systems thinking will become as natural as brushing your teeth in the morning. I can’t imagine anyone not thinking about systems when practicing evaluation. It’s normal science now. The goal should be the same–which is to get a more authentic understanding of […]

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