Working Systemically for Transformation

by School of System Change

February 8, 2024

This is blog four in our series created to complement Stepping Into Systems, our introductory short film series on systems change. In blog one, we speak about the process of creating the film series, which involved in-depth interviews – yarnings – with a diverse range of systems change practitioners. In this blog series, we give space to some of the rich and beautiful sharings from those yarnings. This blog pairs with the third film in the series, 'Working Systemically for Transformation', which explores how we might think and act systemically in our changemaking work. Watch the film here.

The challenges we face today are big and complex, messy and unpredictable. Many of us recognise that there needs to be large-scale global transformation if we are to live in a just and thriving world. So how can we think and act systemically in our changemaking work?

Systems change work asks us to hold change at multiple levels, from the outer transformation we seek to our inner worlds.

Melanie Goodchild explains, "When I think of systemic transformation, I'm cognisant that we're often talking about population-level, large-scale transformative change. But I also think about that zooming in, zooming out and [changing our] perspective. I focus a lot of my energy on the inner work, the inner or interior condition of the innovator, and this idea that systemic transformation happens when there's a collective practice, when people are on a collective wisdom journey and start to look for those leverage points."

Lauren Hermanus explains that working systemically asks that she “thinks holistically … [while] thinking about the people, places, things, dynamics, relationships that comprise that whole, and to have an awareness and attention to scale. So to jump from whole to parts and from parts to whole and various sites of sub-systemic configurations.” 

Many of the practitioners note that while working for transformation, and within systems change, they cannot think of themselves as outside of those systems. Lauren continues: “Systems change is the process of trying to shape a particular system while, through the act of intervention, and often more generally, being embedded in and implicated in that system … it is about positioning oneself and taking responsibility for oneself in this process of embeddedness and intervention.” 

Once we recognise our embeddedness, we can experiment with how we may influence systems evolution. Ben Haggard speaks about “each of us finding a way to make that match between what we've got to give and what needs to be received [by the system] without losing either side of the equation. So in a sense, when I take my own nature and my own potential, and I place it in service to the potential of my community, that grows [the community’s] ability to make a contribution, evolving and becoming a healthier community, making something of greater value in the world. That creates a stretch that allows me to manifest more of my potential,” he explains, talking about the reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship between us as individuals and the systems in which we are nested.

“Now, there is something more to learn, something more to become, something more to develop self-mastery with regard to, something to broaden my perspective with regard to, that will allow me to step up to the next level of contribution [to the system] that's needed. So that's in a sense the driver of change.” Ben asks that we hold a sense of dynamism to what he speaks of, to recognise the aliveness and constant state of change of all the relational elements and interplays within and between systems, and to be conscious of what emerges.

The relationship between us as individuals and the systems in which we are nested is mutually beneficial

Interweaving the Māori worldview, Eruera Tarena hints towards how change events have lineages and emerge through the interactions of elements of a system over time: “We've tried to map some [change events] to understand the whakapapa, the genealogy, and how they came about, even when you get those shifts that seem quite subtle. It may appear that it was just one person who created an edict, and now suddenly everything has shifted. [But] when you look at the detail of it, it's always a mixture of change [events emerging]. The data tells a different story: there’s the shifting mindsets, there's a whole bunch of things around mechanics with policy, with laws, with funding, and with organizational shifts, right down to … new behaviours and new social norms. It's quite interesting tracking those journeys and change.” 

Many of the practitioners say that transformational work is often intangible and sometimes immeasurable by conventional measures. Habiba Nabatu explains, “There are things that we aren’t going to be able to see, measure or put in words but they are contributing to systemic change.” There are always political and historical forces at play. With this, she invites us to consider how our work for change today may weave into the fabric of what’s to come. 

Juanita Zerda explains, “There's [potential for] transformational change when we are thinking about the cultural aspect of the system or the energetic part of the system. Yes, the structural parts of the system need to change, but the relationship between those parts needs to change as well … That's why it is very important to do systems change work collectively, because we all bring our own experiences, privileges, and even biases. The more diverse we are, the more acupuncture points we are going to have, and we're going to put those pressure points differently.”

Eruera shares that “while we have to navigate multiple perspectives, multiple agendas and priorities, [we must] find some way in which we can achieve that commonality of purpose and vision, and that's really hard work, but communities are working on that all the time.”

Working for transformation requires us to always be thinking and working relationally. Melanie says,My practice is systemic because it's collective; it's systemic because it's about relationships, and relationships come first over other things like hierarchy and the status quo. So there's deep hospitality.”

Navigating multiple perspective is inevitable in systems work

Juanita discusses the power and beauty of empathy and its role in fostering deep hospitality. She explains, “If you want to change the system, bring the system into the room. But it's not enough to only bring it into the room. You have to bring it into the room and get the system to relate in a completely transformative way … to truly have a completely different experience of the other. That's the power that starts to change the system.” She speaks of creating the space for people to share their truths with the collective. 

“Truth-telling is a beautiful part of systemic transformation; where truth-telling happens, systemic transformation happens,” says Melanie. “Often, when you're surfacing mental models, and you're trying to transform or shift the status quo, there's a lot of healing that happens. And healing the self, I think, is how you begin to do systems work.”

Speaking of healing justice work, Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe explains, “It transforms people's lives because I believe that if you heal individuals and communities, you have pockets where there is less trauma, there are better learning outcomes for children, there is less domestic violence in homes, and there are better outcomes in terms of health.” 

Systems change work asks us to identify the repeating patterns of injustice that uphold oppression, subjugation, violence and intergenerational trauma and that exist within ourselves – our beliefs and worldviews – and within our communities. Maya Narayan explains, “Windows and mirrors. A ‘window’ allows people to see things from other people's perspectives. A ‘mirror’ lets people know more about their culture and their beliefs and helps them build an identity. So, in that sense, a window is the diverse perspectives of stakeholders that people need to engage with within a system. And a mirror is someone’s own mental models or beliefs.” 

Habiba poses a question: “How do we create space everywhere to be in deeper relationality with each other, with others and our beyond human kin? Every single one of us could ask how we be that in our families, our communities, our workplaces. How can we practise the muscles of being with the world in all its complexity and paradoxes? How do we exercise those muscles as we face these interconnected crises and head towards collapse, and as more shit hits the fan, which it already has for some people.”

She continues that the work “has to be communal. I reject everything that is about the individual. Community as a word gets co-opted to mean a bunch of people coming together. But it’s really about showing up. Showing up with a depth of being together and being prepared to work through the good, the bad and the ugly, and still showing up. Through that, practice emerges. So really trying to be with the more-than-human kin and really trying to be intentional, and really trying to think about from where we source our comforts, our securities, our enjoyments. Are they subsidised by the expropriation and exploitation of others, both human and more-than-human? We should ask ourselves, what does it mean to live with limits and to say no and to be careful about what we’re consuming, not because it's environmental or to save the climate, but because of my relationship to my kin.” 

Referring to Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse, Lauren invites us to think about change work with “a vitalist approach, an approach that is really concerned with life”. She continues:

“At this point in our history – in so far as we inhabit one collective history, which is essentially plural – the idea of being focused on life, I think, is a pretty radical commitment, particularly at a time when we are inundated with narratives and visions of apocalypse and the inevitability of pain and suffering … The challenge is not to turn away in a delusional way but to really hold that sober, perhaps morbid view of where we are, of the reality of where we are and what is already unfolding and is likely to unfold within the context of this crisis but also maintain a commitment to life. What might that mean?”

Constança Belchior talks about “holding that global imperative that we have, which is really trying to respond to what the world needs tonight, really this deep transformation of our species in the way we inhabit Earth and the kind of the role we have.”

We each have different roles in the transformation that’s needed; we each have our own inherent potential. But we should approach our roles with 'deep relationality' in service to the multi-species communities we live and work within. Ben reminds us, “If you want to intervene in a system, let's say a landscape system or a community dynamic or an urban system, you need to have deep respect for that system and its own autonomous reality, its own agency, its own intelligence and wisdom, and you have to have those qualities, the underlying processes of the system drive the intervention, not my desire to create a particular outcome.”

Constança talks about the “uniqueness of place” as imperative to systems change work because everywhere is different, socially, societally, historically, ecologically and geographically. Eruera builds on this, saying, “We need to come at this work from our own angle. Yes, it's about drawing upon the knowledge of the world, but then internalising that and coming up with our own cultural ways of innovation, of systems change, and sharing that back [to the world] as our gift.” 

This beautifully demonstrates how our knowledge systems are in a constant state of relational change. Everything in our world is constantly changing, which means, as Tatenda explains, we are “also constantly change,” and therefore in our work for change, we must “constantly reorganise, because what worked two months ago is not necessarily going to work [today].” 

Intervening in systems requires deep respect for those systems

Ben reiterates this point: “I'm more interested in uncertainty and questions than I am in answers. Answers are fun, but they're ephemeral. The answer I generate today should be different from the answer I generate tomorrow. Otherwise, I'm not growing or deepening my understanding of things.” 

We are forever learning through experimentation, and this continuous state of learning and reflecting is core to systems change work. As Lauren eloquently frames it, in systems change practice:

“There are at least three postures that you have to occupy. The first is being immersed in the practice, in the moments embedded in this process of systems change. That's really about presence. The second posture is looking back, and understanding that all systems are constituted by their history, which stretches out into and towards the future, and what that might mean for the next steps that you want to take in your process. The process of looking back constantly is also a process of retelling history in a way that opens up different possible futures. The last is to look forward to define desired outcomes. To define and redefine. That's not a static process, but there should be goals that serve to orient what you're doing.”

Embedded in systems change work is our collective capacity to learn. Learning is the work of change. Learning is change. Ana Lucia Castaño Galvis says, "Collective systems change thanks to the way we create culture, which is based fundamentally on our capacity to learn in a very particular way, which is social learning, learning from other people … Human systems change is fundamentally a learning process, and it changes because we learn something on a deep level: we learn something new about ourselves, about the world, that changes our paradigm or changes our behaviour. It's our intrinsic capacity and potential to learn put in service of something else and widening our perspective, broadening our capacity in any which way.” She speaks about “the agency that grows out of people's will and people's dreams and people's capacity to learn."

We extend heartfelt thanks to the practitioners for sharing their wisdoms, perspectives, thoughts and ideas. 

With this, let us introduce the contributors to these emergent works:

In alphabetical order:

Ana Lucia Castaño Galvis is the co-founder of Arare Co., an organization that fosters regenerative development of primary production systems in Colombia and Mexico.

Ben Haggard specialises in a holistic, systems-based approach to understanding and building upon the complex human, natural and economic relationships that create and sustain the vitality and viability of a place. He is a founding member of Regenesis.

Constança Belchior is a facilitator and designer of innovation and systemic change with a background in natural sciences and sustainable policy making. She is co-founder of Lúcida, a change management organisation guided by a living change perspective.

Eruera Tarena is Executive Director at Tokona Te Raki, Māori Futures Collective in Aotearoa, an indigenous social innovation lab housed under the mana of Ngai Tahu and based in Otautahi/Christchurch.

Habiba Nabatu is Director of Practice at Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation working to improve the quality of life of people who face severe and multiple disadvantage. She supports pioneering people and communities to nurture the ideas and relationships that can help improve the way we all approach social disadvantage.

Juanita Zerda is a Director at the Collective Change Lab, where she works to support individuals, communities and organizations in transforming inequitable and unjust systems, through more holistic and non-dominant collective change practices.

Lauren Hermanus is a sustainable development researcher and practitioner with 12 years of experience spanning the public and private sectors and academia. She works on issues of just transition, climate resilience, sustainable development, and the adaptive and anticipatory governance that underpins these dynamics.

Maya Narayan is the co-founder of Holon Perspectives, a Mumbai based consultancy, founded with a mission of developing the systems thinking ecosystem in India. She facilitates systems change workshops to better equip organisations and individuals, with tools and frameworks for solving complex problems.

Melanie Goodchild is an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) systems thinking and complexity scholar. She is part of the faculty at the Academy for Systems Change, the Presenting Institute’s u-school for Transformation and the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning.

Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe is a specialised therapist, yogini, author, artist and hypnotist. She is the creator of Oshun Rises, a social enterprise and healing justice foundation committed to re-anchoring African Women's presence in alternative healing and wellness research.

with Rodrigo Bautista, Saskia Rysenbry, Sean Andrew and Anna Birney.

Thank you for going on this journey with us. Here are links to all the content from this series: 

by School of System Change

  • #Worldviews & Philosophies
  • #Relational