Where to begin? moving systems change into action


Good morning everyone. So it’s day three
and my job is to wake you up. Get you.. thinking about moving to action and I
think this might be a bit of a challenge.. because we’ve all had two days of
thinking about, talking about, maybe even.. dreaming about WASHh systems change and
if your head feels anything like mine.. does this morning, then you’re probably
feeling like you’re about to explode.. with ideas and inspiration, maybe some
challenges. And your mind is probably.. beginning to wander back to your journey
home. Think about going back to your.. organisation’s, thinking about moving to
action, but probably feeling a little bit.. overwhelmed and thinking ‘where do I
begin?’ and this is a question which I.. hear all the time in my work at NPC. So
I’m not here as a WASH expert, I’m here.. because I work with social sector
organisations in the UK, whether that’s.. charities, philanthropists, foundations
that are working towards systems change.. in a variety of different systems.
Everything from criminal justice to.. health and social care. From homelessness
to education, children and young people.. and this is the question that I most
often get asked ‘where do I begin with.. all this stuff ?’ So where do we begin? And
the problem that we often see is this.. much of what is written about systems
change, it’s abstract in tone, polemical.. and more concerned with diagnosing what
is wrong, than with offering.. concrete solutions. A few years ago we
set out to write an accessible and.. user-friendly guide to systems change.
And we sought to demystify the topic and.. to present some of the different
perspectives and methodologies. But we.. still got people coming to us and saying
‘well this is great, but where do I begin?’ And we realised that people wanted
something much more practical. People.. were overwhelmed with the range of tools,
techniques and methodologies out there. They were paralysed by the analysis of
the context, the analysis of the problem.. and unsure how to move to action. So we
set out to interview a range of.. practitioners about ‘how you move to
action’. We interviewed people around the.. world. From Cape Town to Kathmandu, from
Nairobi to Seattle, from London to.. Adelaide. And we talked to them about
this knotty question of ‘where do I begin?’ ‘How do I make it real?’ And we were
particularly interested in talking to.. people about their theories of change
and how they determined those, but we.. also picked up more generally a range of
different topics and issues about this.. ‘where do I begin’ question. And if there’s
one thing that I want you to take away.. from what people told us, it’s that
mindset, this method, we talked to.. people who were using a range of tools,
techniques and methods and we tried to.. boil down what they had in common. And it
was really much more about a systems.. change of mindset, than it was about any
particular method. So we tried to distill.. what they told us, down into five rules
of thumb, for moving to action on systems.. change. And before I delve into the
individual rules of thumb, I wanted to.. take a step back and just explain what
we mean by rules of thumb, because I.. think the language can be a little bit
confusing. So by rules of thumb, we don’t.. mean hard and fast rules. These are much
more guides to action. Things that we.. think about in our daily lives, in our
work. So you probably already operate.. with rules of thumb . What do you think
about as you go about your work, perhaps.. think about gender, what is the equality
impact assessment, maybe remember to.. think about the budget, that’s a rule of
thumb, for lots of us, we.. go about our work, but the point here is
that we can change those rules of thumb.. to try to make ourselves think more
systemically. And this is what I’m going.. to share with you today. I’ll run through
each of the five rules of thumb and talk.. a little bit about how NPC has been
using them in one of our recent projects.. to tackle the UK homelessness crisis. So
what rules of thumb can help us to act.. in a more systemic way? These are the
five that we came up with: understand.. context, know yourself, think systemically,
learn and adapt, recognise that change is.. personal and for anyone wanting to read
more about any of these, we’ve got a.. whole guide on them. The link is there.
Actually the link hasn’t shown up on.. that, but we can make sure that it’s
shared afterwards, if you want to.. download it. But I’ll run through very
briefly what they look like. First of all context matters. Projects
and programmes do not exist in isolation. They are embedded in communities and
cultural norms and policy environments.. in markets and networks of institutions.
We all know this and yet so often we.. failed to dedicate time to properly
reflect on the context as we go about.. our work. Crucially we often fail to
compare our understanding of the context.. with other people’s understanding of the
context and it is often here that the.. richest insights are generated. So what
does this look like for understanding.. the UK homelessness sector? NPC is
currently working with a group of.. philanthropists and foundations that are
looking to tackle the UK homelessness.. crisis. As a bit of background, the UK
has seen a sharp rise in homelessness. In.. recent years, we’ve experienced since
2010 a 169%.. increase in rough sleeping, and a 56 %.. increase in families living in temporary
accommodation. And we know that this is.. just the tip of the iceberg. There are
many people that are not picked up in.. the official figures, perhaps because
they’re staying with family and friends.. and they’re sleeping in tents or they’re
sleeping on people’s sofas, which doesn’t.. count as officially homeless, so what can
we do about this? how do we.. seek to to understand the context for
this? Well it’s a complex issue with the.. root cause is often invisible to the
general public and indeed often.. invisible to philanthropists, who are
looking to make a difference with their.. money. So we gathered a group of
organisations that were working in this.. space and set out to map the context
around homelessness. We started by.. mapping out what causes homelessness,
what causes people to become.. homelessness, and you can see here we’ve
got homelessness in the centre and we.. started to map out some of the causes
around that, so everything from poverty.. which the evidence suggests is the
one factor that is most likely to make.. an individual homeless by the age of 30.
In the UK particularly experiencing.. child poverty through to a cluster of
traumatic life experiences up at the top.. there and health issues down at the
bottom, we also started to explore issues.. with the housing system, that led to a
lack of affordable housing for people so.. far so good, but we wanted to go further
and look at the causes of the causes so.. we went to layer out and looked at what
causes poverty, what causes people to.. have traumatic life experiences and so
on. And we realised that there’s a lot of.. different factors involved there, each of
these could be a system in their own.. right or at the centre of a system in
their own right. But we went a little bit.. further and we looked at the causes of
those causes and here we were getting to.. things like policies, we were getting to
market forces, we were getting to public.. attitudes and we were really beginning
to delve into what was driving the UK.. homelessness crisis. We started to look
at where the energy was in the system. Because there’s a lot of different
things there and it was quite.. overwhelming.
But one of the things that.. time and time again both in our
conversations and also through looking.. at the evidence base was that the UK’s
recent welfare reform policies were.. driving inadvertently a lot of the UK
homelessness crisis and even though this.. was several layers away from where we’d
started, it was a really significant.. factor. So from this we could start to
identify leverage points for action. We.. could start to think about how do we
address these issues, whether our role is.. charities, whether we’re philanthropists,
whether we’re funders, but all of this is.. necessary, but not sufficient for systems
change. Understanding context can only.. get us so far, we also need to turn the
mirror on ourselves and this brings me.. to the second rule of thumb: know
yourself. If we’re serious about being.. effective agents of change, then we need
to recognise that we are part of the.. system that we are seeking to influence.
We need to ask ourselves how our actions.. our behaviors, our motivations are
driving the system’s performance. Maybe.. helping to uphold the status quo. And
this can be really difficult. It can be.. difficult to turn the mirror on yourself
and look at some of the problems that.. you might be helping to create. You might
be a successful business person that’s.. looking to alleviate poverty in your
community and you might realise that.. actually some of your own employment
practices are driving people into.. insecure employment and into poverty.
That’s a difficult realisation you might.. be an NGO worker, who realised this or
the trust you’re trying to build of.. communities is undermined by your own
short-term programme timescales. But this.. is very important work to do and it’s
also you might be surprised in a good.. way. You might discover resources that
you didn’t realise you had, such as your.. knowledge, your relationships. You might
discover a different role that you could.. play in the system. And we did some of
this work around our systems map. I don’t.. have time to go into the detail of all
the roles that we uncovered, but I’ve put.. up just four here to give you a flavor
of some of the conversations that we had. And we found that people started off on
the left-hand side.. maybe raising quite traditional or
obvious roles that they or the.. organisations they funded were playing,
providing services or advocating changes.. but as we dug deeper we’ve realised that
there were other roles that.. organisations either were already
playing or that could play. And sometimes.. that meant flipping the role that they
thought they were playing, so it could be.. supporting service users to navigate
services or it could be amplifying the.. voices of people with lived experience
of homelessness, rather than the.. organisation themselves, advocating for
policy change. And it’s only here when we.. combine the understanding of the context
and the leverage points with our.. understanding of our own potential roles
in the system that we can really.. understand how to bring these two
together and move to action. But in all.. of this we need to think systemically.
And this is the point that I find the.. social sector organisations often
struggle the most with it, can feel.. pretty overwhelming to know what this
means. We need to build our capacity to.. think in terms of circles and feedback
loops and fractals instead of just.. thinking in terms of straight lines,
boxes, single causes and certainties and.. if how Patrick [Moriarty] started us off on Day 1
by referencing Donella Meadows and I.. want to draw in her wisdom again here
today, Donella wrote that there’s.. something within the human mind that is
attracted to straight lines and not.. curves, to uniformity, and not diversity,
to certainties, and not mysteries. You.. might be able to recognise this in
yourself, and see that sometimes you have.. a tendency to think in this way, but
there is hope. Donella also wrote that.. another part of us recognises
instinctively that nature designs and.. fractals with intriguing detail on every
scale, from the microscopic to the.. macroscopic. So we all have within us
this capacity to think systemically, but.. somewhere along the way it seems to get
lost. Perhaps it’s our education system that
encourages us to categorise things and.. put things in boxes, and think in
terms of certainties, and what is a.. fact and what
in fact. Perhaps it’s our institutional.. structures, our performance targets, our
social norms that often privilege for.. linear thinking. So cultivating this
capacity to think systemically means.. challenging some of our assumptions. And
indeed challenging our sense of control. Because we can’t control all these
different factors and along with dancing.. with systems, Donella Meadows metaphor,
two of my other favorite metaphors for.. thinking about systems change are
cultivating a garden and raising a child. Both of these we accept are complex and
unpredictable. We accept that we can’t control
everything. We can’t control the weather. And yet somehow we navigate our way
through it and this is what we have to.. do with systems change, from everything
I’ve said so far, you’ll have picked up.. that systems change is hard,
social systems are messy, complex. Our interventions can have unpredictable and
often unintended consequences. There’s no.. serious alternative, but to take an
iterative and flexible approach. Learning.. and adapting as we go. So what does this
look like? There are reams and reams of.. articles written about developing a
learning culture and learning.. environments. Academic papers, articles in
Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation review. The thing that’s most
important for me across all of these.. frameworks, is that they emphasise the
importance of curiosity, flexibility and.. humility. And our tools, techniques and
leadership, and our culture all need to.. support this. So we need to create an
environment where people can challenge.. orthodoxies, where people can accept
uncertainty, and maybe even share.. failures. So any of you that missed the
fantastic failures game show yesterday, I.. would highly encourage you to check that
out as a as a way to share failures in a.. safe space, but we also need to embed
feedback loops into our work, so that we.. avoid failures in the first place. We
need to be listening to our communities,.. partners and other stakeholders.
Embedding rapid feedback loops, so that.. we understand what is going on and what
is getting right, what we’re getting wrong.. as we go and finally with all of this
change can be a deeply personal and.. emotive business. Why is this? Well
because people drive change. It’s our relationships, attitudes,
motivations and behaviors that drive.. weather change happens and how change
happen, so change can involve deeply.. personal things for people. Those that
currently benefit from the status quo.. may feel a deep sense of loss from
change and this challenges any of us.. that think that change is technical. It
could be really easy once we map the.. system only found our leverage points to
think ‘oh great we just need to push on.. these leverage points, change will happen’.
It’s easy, but it’s really not. Change.. often also involves challenging deeply
held social attitudes that cut across.. the whole of society. We examine this a
little bit in our UK homelessness work,.. building on previous research that had
been done by the Frameworks.. Institute, who spoke with over 10,000
people in the UK about their views on.. homelessness and they found this that
home is associated with warmth, stability.. family, love, normality and this affects
the way that we see homeless people, so.. that homeless people are often seen as
different or other. This creates stigma. A.. sense of them and does and social sector
organisations can often reinforce this.. through the way that they effectively
segregate people through services as one.. civil society leader said to us. We have
homeless training coaches with homeless.. soup kitchens, we even have homeless
haircuts. This cements people’s identity.. as homeless and it means that all their
social support networks are built around.. that identity. This actually limits our
effectiveness in tackling the issue of.. homelessness. It also limits our
collective imagination in thinking about.. ending homelessness, time and again. And
working with philanthropists, we heard an.. attitude that the homeless will always
be with us. And this is an attitude that is held
quite widely across the UK society. We’re.. beginning to break down some of these
barriers through our work with.. philanthropists and funders, but we know
that we need to go further. And change is.. also personal. For those of us that are
working and pushing for social change, we.. all bring our own life experiences,
identities, values, beliefs, prejudices, and.. habits to our work. Many insights flow
from this. First of all that who is in.. the room making the decisions matters. If
we’re serious about change, then we need.. to include the perspectives of those who
are affected by change. Those who have.. lived experience of the issues that were
seeking to tackle. But also change can be.. messy, challenging and emotional. And
acknowledging some of this, can help us.. to be more effective at change. So
finally, I want to end with another.. Donella Meadows quote and you can tell
I’m quite a fan of her. Systems change.. requires our full humanity. It requires
our rationality, our intuition our.. compassion, our vision, and our morality.
As you go back to your organisation’s.. later today, I invite you to bring your
full humanity to your work. And I believe.. that only then, can we be truly effective
at lasting systems change. Thank you.




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