Q & A with Frances Westley: Learning to play the systems game

Westley_Frances_wood-cropped Frances Westley is chair of social innovation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She talks to New Start about how an understanding of system dynamics can help scale up social change


Q. It feels though we are at a point in time when systemic change is needed in many of our economic, social or environmental systems. Why do you think that is the case?

A. Systems get more complex to the extent that they are more highly interconnected, and as a system gets more interconnected it becomes harder to act strategically in it and use a Newtonian approach of cause and effect. One of the first people in social sciences to articulate this was Eric Trist from the Tavistock Institute. He set up this wonderful analogy of sailboats in a storm, each one manned by a sailor who knows how to sail and all trying to get to different ports but every time they try to manoeuvre, they find themselves inexplicably blown off course. Because what they don’t know is they are connected under the water with flexible cables so each sailboat is trying to go to a different port but they are all affecting each other. Things are so complex because we can’t see the things that are likely to knock us off course.

So you need processes that will assume this kind of interconnectedness. For Trist this meant removing silos. This meant trying to get all those people in the same room so that they recognise they are all connected and decide on a common destination. Since Trist people have continued to develop ideas around complexity – especially around ecology and resilience theory. If you don’t understand that dynamic you don’t have room to manoeuvre. You either make the mistake of believing that as an individual you have the capacity to work in a cause and effect way that will make change happen, or you make the error of believing that, because these forces are so much bigger than you, you have no power.

Complexity theory has moved very quickly to create thinking and decision making tools to work in this universe. Connectedness creates a different dynamic than when you had decoupled systems or very loose public systems. That’s the argument for why complexity is going up, and why things seem more intractable and also for the need to take systems-based approaches to the problems confronting us.

Q. Is there a cycle to the way systems work?

A. According to resilience theory, healthy systems go through an adaptive cycle that has a ‘front loop’, similar to what we would call a traditional growth curve. So the idea or organisation moves from product launch to being successful and established. It also has a ‘back loop’, which is the notion of reorganising and changing. Theorists postulated two places where companies, products and communities get stuck. The first is at the end of the front loop and is called the ‘rigidity trap’. So for example corporate firms become reliant on particular products and processes and stop being attentive to market sales. They need to continuously innovate or the market moves out from under them. You avoid that trap by putting resources into thinking about new products and services. The ‘back loop’ in organisations is the innovation process where you come up with good ideas, test them and spend time and resources on one new product. The other place where systems get trapped is what’s called the ‘poverty trap’ which is the transition from the back loop – the innovation process – to the beginning of the front loop – product launch for example. The issue there is whether choice is made. If you’re in a system that has multiple initiatives but no choice is made you can get stuck there.

Q. So our systems are getting stuck because they are unable to innovate or be decisive enough about where and how to innovate.

A. Yes, if you you think about the stages and dynamics in very complex systems – such as reconstructing the economy or helping stop the cycle of re-offending – they move through these stages. Let’s take the foster system. It’s clearly dysfunctional and could be described as being in a poverty trap as they keep subsidising a system that doesn’t work. The public sector sometimes might put out a challenge to charities or social enterprises to come up with new ideas for a system that isn’t working but what tends to happen in 90% of cases is – because of their commitment to fairness – they don’t make a choice and invest in an idea but instead they distribute money according to multiple ideas. So they are trapped in ‘rigidity’ or ‘poverty’ all the time.

Q. What usually kickstarts change?

A. Change can happen quite quickly – and be repressed quite firmly – by understanding how it cascades through society. You need to understand how ideas move from the individual to the family to the community, province, nation and globe. In the 1990s most people studying change and social innovation were concerned with notions of social movements. So social change came from the mobilising of one faction of society or believers against another. The ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’ for example. It implied opposition if not conflict.

But as we started to get more familiar with complexity ideas we started to think about the types of activity that would cause things to happen much more quickly by understanding how systems and institutions work. Social entrepreneurs get hold of new ideas and and look for cracks in the institutional systems, moments of opportunity in which the ideas they have nurtured are an answer to a broader institutional problem. If you have the right networks in place you could move your idea upscale quite quickly and have a much bigger impact. So you may be nurturing multiple innovations and wait for the right opportunities, but you need to have the networks to move those opportunities quickly when you can. This model works best in western democracies where we have fairly robust institutional context and know that opportunities happen in that context. Rather that setting out in a deliberate way to change the system, it says that if you understand and respect the system dynamics and innovation you can find ways to plug innovative ideas.

Q. So it’s about building the alternative system and waiting for the opportunity to scale it up. The devolution movement in the UK could be said to fit in with that idea, where places like greater Manchester worked towards building a devolved system and now that national politics has caught up, they are ready to plug it in.

A. That’s a great example. There’s a growing group of people who are operating along those kinds of principles, staying tuned to these opportunities and being prepared for them. But there are other cases that are the opposite. Look at the Arab spring. A huge opportunity was created by a social media campaign but there was no follow-through. There was nothing ready to go. It wasn’t part of a strategy where you push open a door and you have something ready to walk through. In other places you have enormous efforts to build up an initiative but no effort to keep track of the broader institutional scale and how that might be tipped in favour of supporting those local and innovative initiatives so that after a while they die out.

Look at the Arab spring. A huge opportunity

was created but there was no follow-through.

Q. Do you have any examples of systems change working?

A. There’s a great example from Canada of the registered disability savings plan. A financial instrument was created which allows families and friends of people on disability to invest money which the government matches and which can be used after a number of years by the individual. This has radical implications for all welfare recipients in Canada and over time it will destroy the welfare act as it challenges it in fundamental way. Those working on it were able to get the right actors involved at the right time and move it upstream and have an enormous impact. It didn’t take forever and has changed our country’s system for disabled people.

There’s a nice example of a move from individual fisheries to a community fishery model to protect fish stocks in Chile. It started with a group of scientists working with coastal communities where the ecological system was almost destroyed. When the coup that ended Pinochet’s regime happened they saw an opportunity and moved quickly to change the way fisheries were managed almost overnight.

Q. What tips would you give organisations wanting to create systemic change?

A. You need to work on two fronts. Firstly, by identifying the promising innovation at the local level and secondly, by thinking systemically to see what has the capacity to fundamentally change a broader institutional system. If you look at a UK-based innovation like the Meam approach which is trying to create a system that isn’t siloed, it’s pretty radical to think about what needs to change but you also need to be looking for how that idea can be moved upstream so it can be institutionalised at all levels. If this doesn’t happen you will get a snapback effect. For many innovations that opportunity never comes – or the opportunity happens and nothing is ready. It’s not a game you can learn the rules of and win but you can operate on that landscape when you think of it that way.

We are getting better at being able to think about problems in terms of systems and people have been developing the theory and application of it and decision-makers are increasingly sensitive to it. It makes me feel optimistic that we can accelerate some of that change because it’s not so unconscious. People always understood it but are now becoming more aware of it and therefore are able to play that particular game with good consequences.


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