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Systems Change Forum

Systems Change: Lessons from the Field

On December 4-5, 2023, fifty leading practitioners, academics and funders gathered on the HBS campus to discuss their experiences in addressing some of today’s largest and most complex social challenges from a systems lens. Over a day and a half of panel sessions moderated by HBS faculty, participants presented and learned about various systems approaches to social change across a variety of sectors, ranging from climate, healthcare, homelessness, foster care to workforce development. Discussions delved into major issues facing the practice of systems change, including the balance between direct service provision with advocacy and organizing, identifying leverage points and bottlenecks in systems work, measurement, tradeoffs between being an insider and outsider, and the leadership journey of the social changemaker.

The event featured two keynote speeches, from Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey and HBS Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, as well as a visit from HBS Dean Srikant Dakar, who shared his encouragement with the group on Monday evening. Participants also broke out into smaller, facilitated peer groups throughout the forum to discuss specific themes and challenges they saw across the field. The forum raised multiple insights and challenges that are elaborated on in the full forum proceedings document at the bottom of this page. We highlight five themes and three tensions below.

Five main themes

1. Multiple strategies have led to socially impactful change to policies, practices, or behaviors. Participants used the term systems change to refer to a variety of approaches and solutions to social challenges. At different points during the forum, ‘systems change’ described the process of coordinating actors; scaling service delivery models; leveraging solutions; changing regulatory structures, policies, and laws; and building people-powered movements to shape norms, beliefs, and practices.

2. Changemakers can catalyze collective action by developing influence i.e., building and demonstrating credibility, legitimacy, and trusted relationships. Participants highlighted three elements that enabled them to develop influence: 1) Having a deep understanding of the problem and its stakeholders; 2) Gaining credibility through sustained commitment, and 3) Building legitimacy as a knowledgeable authority in the field. Providing direct service was one powerful way for systems changemakers to develop their influence. Changemakers can also wield influence in positions of formal authority, or by affiliating with entities that have earned institutional influence.

3. Effective systems change collaborations take different forms but must build on a foundation of trust. Panelists shared examples of various working models, from a single partnership between an insider and outsider, to multiple coordinated coalitions working towards a common goal. Role clarity, persistence and alignment went a long way, but panelists noted that progress moved only at the speed of trust.

4. Some organizations struggle to balance claiming credit to show donors and sharing credit with others in collective systems change efforts. Taking credit, or attribution, attracted funders, while giving credit to others, or contribution, was commonly accepted practice in systems change. Existing funding structures needed better alignment with the process-oriented realities of systems work. Furthermore, “attribution” was complicated by the difficulties of measuring how and whether systems change was happening.

5.  Organizations pursuing both direct service and systems change efforts need to build complementary capabilities. Scaling service delivery calls for a set of skills, knowledge, tools, and competencies different from collaborative systems change efforts. Organizations need to invest in skills and competencies in both domains to reach their goals. Alternatively, some might lean into their comparative advantage in area, and let go of the other.

Three notable tensions

1. How, as an organizational leader, does one navigate resource allocation between core mission and systems change work? Funding remained a perennial challenge for many organizations, and came up several times in the forum, in both panel discussion and small group meetings. For example, what if advocacy work creates discomfort with corporate sponsors? How do you delineate between “mission creep” and expanding into broader, more diffuse forms of advocacy and collective impact efforts?

2. How do we define and harness the energy of locally-led and owned movements? One participant observed that the term “movement” was sometimes used synonymously with securing funding for local organizations. Others raised the issue. How broadly should we define a social movement? How do you take movements and capitalize on the energy that surrounds movement and use them to trigger or catalyze systems change?

3. How do organizations and leaders balance working as both a player and a catalyst in a field? How do you balance funding pressures to claim credit for your work without undermining a collective effort? How do you move beyond individual branding/credit of your organization to advance a broader systems-cause and share the credit with other players in a manner that avoids threatening relationships or power balances? Relatedly, how does one embed the capacity to do longer-term systems work when one is constrained by resources?

Read the full proceedings

Summaries by panel session, small group highlights and readings referenced by forum participants.

Systems Change Forum Proceedings PDF