Practical steps to unlock systems change

Scott Hinkle, Systems Change Specialist at Wasafiri, explains that even the most complex systems can be shifted. Individuals and teams beginning to do just a few things differently can ultimately lead to meaningful change.

Every day I work with organisations and leaders to integrate systems thinking – from children’s communities in London to global sustainable livestock initiatives, helping create jobs for young Africans in the digital sector and with humanitarian organisations.

Wasafiri, which started off working mostly in conflict and governance and food systems, has been brought into these different areas because Systemcraft, our framework for tackling complex problems and driving transformational change, works for such a range of challenges. All of our clients have complex issues, often with similar characteristics, which can be tackled using systems change principles and tools.

The two principles I normally start with are:

  • Work on the enabling conditions: Try to view complex issues as unwanted outputs of a system functioning in a certain, albeit entrenched way. That helps to show where you can intervene. Working on the enabling conditions of a system, rather than on the issues directly, is what creates systemic change.
  • Build collective action: Complex issues can’t be shifted unless you start working collectively across different stakeholders, teams and organisations. Collective action is all about gaining a little momentum and watching that grow into something different.

Systemcraft is super flexible, so I always tell people: ‘Use what works: get rid of the rest.’ Make changes in your organisation that make sense for you. Good change should be practical, meaningful and real – it will be different for different organisations.

So, where to start?

A mindset of small tweaks over time

Organisations often perceive systems change in the humanitarian sector as an overwhelming task requiring a complete overhaul, but in reality, incremental adjustments can lead to significant changes and impact over time.

Many mistakenly believe systems change necessitates starting from scratch with a massive strategic transformation that will take years, leading to feelings of being stuck and overwhelmed.

Change can be incremental rather than monumental. The world typically evolves gradually until circumstances align, prompting bursts of change within systems. Similarly, organisations can follow suit by making small improvements, tweaking existing ways of working, and incorporating iterative learning processes until big shifts happen.

Work with practical entry points

​​Shifting away from the notion of requiring a total makeover of the organisation, we adopt a practical stance towards systems change. By examining ongoing projects and integrating two or three new principles into near-term actions (like next week), we aim to make tangible progress.

Systems are complex, dynamic and full of surprises. They can be hard to understand, with tensions and things you can’t control. This context can’t be simplified, but guides and tools can suggest practical next steps. So we start by making it really operational and useful for individuals and teams.

This operational approach relieves pressure and makes change easier by allowing us to identify key starting points, or ‘windows of opportunity’, where we can begin working differently. Drawing on the principle of working on enabling conditions, we gain traction in the system, gradually navigate its complexities and create influence to make good change happen.

A significant challenge I’m trying to tackle is how to cultivate collective, adaptive teams within rigid, hierarchical institutions such as governments, businesses, or large NGOs, which were not originally designed for such flexibility.

Here are a few insights I’ve gleaned and apply in my work.

Enable adaptive teams

In every organisation, there’s usually a team eager to shake things up and try new approaches. These passionate champions are where the real magic happens.

When a small team is committed to doing things differently and starts working in that way, people feel the difference first, before they see the impact. Within a couple of months they begin to love working like that, the inquiring nature of it, not having all the answers and also knowing that they don’t need all the answers right now. A small team committed to new ways of working can drive innovation and inspire a cultural shift towards adaptability and curiosity.

Prioritise learning

Adaptability and learning are essential in navigating the continuous cycle of humanitarian crises. Humanitarian crises are inevitable – that’s the harsh reality and we can’t ‘fix’ that. Organisations often operate under the illusion of an end state, but the truth is, it’s a continuous cycle. Even if you resolve an issue today, tomorrow presents new challenges that we must adjust to.

What matters is working adaptively, taking action, evaluating its effectiveness and adjusting accordingly. Instead of chasing a perfect solution, let’s prioritise adaptability and learning to achieve better outcomes.

Identify institutional barriers

Within the humanitarian sector, institutional barriers hinder more flexible, iterative action learning processes. People feel like they want to do something different, but they aren’t incentivised to take risks and try new things. What is incentivised is sticking to the plan as much as possible.

Recognising these limitations upfront is more productive than striving for idealistic approaches that may clash with institutional structures. It’s crucial to acknowledge and work within these boundaries within our teams, organisations, and the complex systems we navigate. Listing them at the outset can aid in setting realistic goals and attainable actions.

Believe it can be different

Cultivating a learning culture plays a pivotal role in unlocking systems change. Embracing this culture means nurturing change and adaptation, fostering a mindset where small adjustments lead to significant transformations over time.

These shifts occur by focusing on the practical aspects of organisational structures and enhancing individuals’ capabilities to think and act differently. This investment in both processes and people ultimately fosters a long-term learning culture. Change typically starts with small individual adjustments, guided by the right principles rather than elaborate action plans.

It’s about asking: What can I do differently? What can our team do differently? These subtle changes pave the way for more collective, systemic, and adaptive approaches. Crucially, it’s about having faith that change is possible.

Just as the world and your work context evolve constantly, so can you and your organisation. You can do it. We do it all the time. It is possible.