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Changing the system: Lessons from the Midwest

<p>How is large-scale systems change accomplished? A 10-year project called Re-AMP may offer a few clues.</p>

A desire for societal system change is in the air, whether you're looking at health care systems, educational systems, or most of all, our economic system. What is interesting today is that some unusual suspects are showing up and advocating for systems change.

Yet while the number of people with systems change aspirations is exploding, the question remains: How is large-scale systems change accomplished? A 10-year project called Re-AMP may offer a few clues.

This project emerged as discussions of systems change rapidly have proliferated. For example, social entrepreneurs are regularly convened to discuss how to affect broad-scale change by the likes of the Acumen Fund, Echoing Green, the Skoll Foundation and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. Students studying social entrepreneurship in business schools or sustainability in environment programs are learning from decades of academic research on societal change, including the U.S. civil rights movement, the demise of apartheid in South Africa and the the rise of the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe.

NGO strategists increasingly are reviewing these lessons and applying systems thinking to further develop guidelines and frameworks, such as these "principles of social change" we created 10 years ago with thought leaders Hillary Bradbury and David Sibbet.

The opportunity and need now is to draw upon the base of existing applied and academic knowledge in order to develop and test theories of social change as they apply to particular issues, and then collaborate, apply and scale the action as well as the learning.

Detour image by BaLL LunLa via Shutterstock.

The Re-AMP project

One example of work that may spur additional thinking on the issue was launched about 10 years ago. The Garfield Foundation and sustainability consultant Rick Reed were discussing their frustration that the great work of philanthropists and NGOs was not adding and scaling up. A simple question transformed their thinking: What would a systems approach to philanthropy look like?

The question led to a highly collaborative and experimental initiative with a group of NGOs, advocates and philanthropic foundations in the upper Midwest. All were focused on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Midwest, which is predominantly coal powered. All agreed that the current situation reflected what losing looked like, with ever-more coal proposals on the horizon. It was clear to many people that more of the same effort was unlikely to achieve the desired outcome of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.  

The situation at the time was typical in philanthropy and the nonprofit sectors: funds were widely scattered and most initiatives were limited in reach and personnel. Gains were few.

The Re-AMP project was created to address this situation. It assembled a wide spectrum of advocates from across the NGOs and philanthropic foundations working on transforming the energy system. This disparate set of players was then engaged in an analytical systems mapping process through a series of meetings that yielded highly visual maps of the system that they were trying to change. It was transformative. Key leverage points were agreed upon for the first time. An audacious shared goal emerged with strong support from all sides.

The process was more straightforward than the traditional academic analysis of systems dynamics, as pioneered by Jay Wright Forrester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Donella Meadows popularized it in the sustainability domain with her writing on "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System" as well as Peter Senge's work within the Society for Organizational Learning.

Business people may have called the Re-AMP systems analysis and mapping approach "fit for purpose." It worked. It fit for the context and purpose. Most important, this group process catalyzed a multi-year collective initiative that led to the coordination of work across over a dozen foundations and more than 160 NGOs spread across an eight-state region in the upper Midwest. Their efforts resulted in the halt of 30 proposed coal plants, the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road; a 20-fold increase in renewable wind energy, and a six-fold increase in investments in energy efficiency.

Of course, none of this was seamless. There were disagreements, with the proverbial ruffled feathers and the less openly discussed bruised egos. But, all things considered, the process was reasonably free of truly divisive acrimony. Numerous people said, both publicly and privately, that it was motivating to have a jointly produced, common frame in which to discuss how to make the change happen -- the systems change that everyone wanted but no one previously had agreed on -- and concurrence on a set of pathways to collectively pursue. Funders and advocates alike think that with the systems mapping and collaborative process, they began (and continue) to make smarter decisions.

Lessons learned

So, what does the Re-AMP case mean as we hear more and more calls for systems change, of economies, businesses, governments and neighborhoods?

It means that it matters to work with multiple players focused on changing a specific system to:

• develop a common understanding of the system dynamics and leverage points for changing the system;
• align around and support one another's work on key leverage points; and
• build in face-to-face opportunities for collaboration and coordination on working toward common goals (with big egos finding room on the benches, or in other speaking halls, to cheer on those with a collaborative network mindset).
This particular path to effecting change is clear: Systems thinking linked with scenario planning, which is applied within a multi-year, face-to-face process with multiple actors (including unusual suspects and unrecognized leaders) meeting regularly to discuss and debate theories of change in terms of systems thinking. In this case, many key areas of work were led by unusual suspects and unrecognized leaders. Simple and yet hard to truly assemble and maintain.

Of course, many other examples exist, such as the Sustainable Cotton Project, The Sustainable Food Lab, the Forest Stewardship Council and many others documented over the years by academics and NGOs, such as the Society for Organizational Learning.

The opportunity now is to try it. Invite players from across the system that you are trying to change to jointly develop a visual systems map. Add arrows that indicate positive and negative feedback loops, and learn about what these loops do to the systems that you are trying to change. Understand how systems resist change. Scrutinize your analytical systems maps and diagrams with others trying to effect change. Get into it, get worked up and get aligned.

Then, start to act while maintaining regular strategy discussions with other actors working on systems change. Repeat earlier steps, regularly. Argue, feel passionately, act and think more about changing the system. Lay out your logic visually for all to see.

Perhaps as we apply and invent more of these kinds of processes for "seeing" the systems that we are trying to change, then we indeed may find ourselves on the cusp of major systems change. Which would be exciting, wouldn't it?

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