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Lessons from the Field of Systems Change

By: Courtney Han 03 Apr 2024

In recent years, the term “systems change” has taken the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors by storm. While many agree with its central tenets—addressing root causes rather than surface-level symptoms, engaging with the structures and dynamics that have produced undesirable outcomes—finding ways to translate the ideals of systems change into practical strategies has proven to be more difficult.

In 2023, a small group of HBS faculty conceived of the idea to bring systems practitioners from around the world together on campus, where they could teach and inspire one another with examples of how they applied systems change to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges. Organized under the theme “Lessons from the Field,” the forum was held on December 4-5, 2023. The fifty-odd participants came from multiple sectors, with experience as founders, funders and academics. Many were leaders in their respective fields, which ranged from U.S. contraceptive policy to global slavery.

Over five moderated panels, presenters shared accounts of how they navigated powerful incumbent structures, vested interests and entrenched ways of thinking. They detailed how they came to identify compelling leverage points and define their activities in relation to systems concepts. Presenters were forthright about the pushback they faced from funders and board members when they sought to introduce more collaborative elements to their portfolio of activities.

The panel topics were organized around major perennial challenges common to social enterprise and nonprofit leaders. How do you balance direct service provision with advocacy efforts? How do you manage bottlenecks at the systems level? How do you measure and justify your work in the less quantifiable aspects of social change? And how do you work effectively at higher levels of policy and practice change without sacrificing the insight that comes from close proximity to your beneficiaries and their lived experiences? One panel on the leadership journey took a more personal angle. Contributors spoke about the ways that systems change work has transformed them as individuals in and outside of their professional roles. Multiple presenters emphasized the patience, compromise and humility that systems work asked of them on a daily basis.

Of the many learnings and research questions raised over the day-and-a-half, five themes were particularly compelling.

Theme 5 focused on the different skills required for systems change work compared to service delivery.

  • The classic social entrepreneur paradigm of success often centers on effective service delivery, which typically requires deep technical expertise, trusted relationships and knowledge of a particular issue and population. Successful social entrepreneurs also draw on managerial skills to standardize and scale their organizations. Many social entrepreneurs are exposed to such skills in MBAs and develop them as they grow and evolve.
  • Systems change efforts, on the other hand, rely on collaboration muscle. The ability to organize and work effectively with others to progress towards shared goals is a hallmark of an effective systems practitioner. Sometimes collaboration means convincing a reluctant stakeholder that joining a group is worth their time. It might mean influencing “from behind,” by ceding control or credit for others to take the spotlight. And it can involve facilitating difficult conversations, building rapport, and orchestrating activities across groups to find commonality over inevitable differences. As several forum participants pointed out, ultimately, progress in collaborations moved “at the speed of trust.”
  • The finding suggests that organizations pursuing both direct service and systems change efforts should account for both sets of capabilities. Organizations rich in systems assets could benefit from enhancing their service competencies. Organizations with existing service competencies might take stock of their systems competencies before diving into systems work.

You can find more lessons and insights from the systems change forum in the Forum Proceedings.

Attendees also heard from Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey, and HBS Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who both delivered keynote speeches. At a cocktail hour on the first evening of the forum, HBS Dean Srikant Dakar shared his support for the group’s efforts.

Participants have since written to say that the forum left them energized and ready to tackle challenges with fresh eyes. Many were enthusiastic about participating in a shared learning community with representation from multiple sectors and different fields.

In light of this positive reception, the systems change organizers have started to plan a second forum to take place in the late spring of 2025. More details related to that event, along with relevant research and systems-related programming at HBS, will be made available on the Social Enterprise Initiative website. If you’re interested in contributing to the next systems change forum, please reach out to the SEI team. We’d love to hear your suggestions!