Leading for Systems Change, by Judy Bruce

  • 15 October 2020

Have you watched The Social Dilemma? This is a documentary where tech experts sound the alarm on the dangerous human impact of social networking. If ever there was the need for systems change then surely this would be it? But systems change isn’t always something global. It can also be a small and bounded context that you work within, usually concerned with justice and equity. Ultimately, systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place[1].

After many years of engagement in education, youth and community work for justice, I’ve found systems change research to be profoundly helpful. Systems change models and tools provide practical ways of thinking about and taking steps toward change, while recognising complexity without too much complication!

Ok, so you have most likely heard about, and been engaged in systems change (possibly unknowingly!). But what about leading for systems change? Where does one even begin, especially where challenges are complex, stakeholder investments are seemingly fixed, and resources are limited?  As a researcher and convenor engaged in systems change, I’ve been digging into two publications (Changing Systems, Power and Potential by Fiona McKenzie and Mark Cabaj[2] and The Dawn of System Leadership by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania[3]) to learn more about this topic. So, what are some of the takeaways?

McKenzie and Cabaj (2020) describe leading for systems change as the process of holding space for something new to emerge and it is concerned with generating collective impact through humble, adaptive approaches. It is “leadership that can hold different views, builds trust, surfaces conflict and builds alignment” (p. 13). McKenzie and Cabaj (2020) go on to provide practical tools and frameworks for thinking about leading and learning for systems change, after first providing easy to understand definitions and descriptions of systems change. Their leadership ideas have in part been informed by the work of Senge, Hamilton and Kania (2015) which includes a description of three core capabilities for leading systems change: seeing the big picture, fostering reflection and generative conversations, and shifting the collective focus from reactive to co-creating future possibilities. When reading about these three capabilities, I was reminded again about The Social Dilemma, and in particular one of the key leaders of the ethical technology change movement, Tristan Harris. Former Design Ethicist at Google, and now Co-Founder and President of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan firstly, not only sees the larger (in this case global) system, he also helps others to see the system and invites them (and us) into a collaborative journey of change. Secondly, through numerous platforms, Tristan (along with many others) fosters reflection and generative conversations–The Social Dilemma is one such platform. And thirdly, he is shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating different futures through the establishment of the Centre for Humane Technology.

While this example given is truly global, you may rightly ask, what does this mean for us working in Aotearoa at a more local level? I encourage you to dig in to these publications too, and begin to share with others the ideas of systems change leadership and what has been, and can be done to generate change within Aotearoa.

What we know is that the same problems that have persisted for decades in Aotearoa cannot be solved with the same tired responses. We need new ways of thinking and acting. Systems change leadership may provide a way of co-creating a different future.


[1] Kania, J., Kramer, M., & Senge, P. (2018). The Waters of Systems Change. FSG Re-imaging Social Change. Retrieved from, https://www.fsg.org/publications/water_of_systems_change.

[2] McKenzie, F. & Cabaj, M. (2020). Changing systems, power and potential: A synthesis of insights from the Canberra Workshop, 2-3 March, 2020. Collaboration for Impact and Here to There Consulting Inc. The publication is a collation of evidence based research applied in practical context and includes a useful section on leading for systems change. https://www.eastgippslandpcp.com.au/assets/files/2020/April/changing-systems--power---potential-workshop-synthesis-april-2020.pdf

[3] Senge, P., Hamilton, H., & Kania, J. (2015). The dawn of systems change. Stanford Social innovation Review. Retrieved from, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership

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