Systems Change and Leading in the Land of Complexity

Photo of a complex road system made up of many lanes and offramps

In this three-part series GKI’s Chase Keenan shares some of the thinking that emerged from a piece of research done by Chase, Sara Farley, Renee Vuillaume, and Glen Burnett. The aim of this research was to further GKI’s understanding of how systems change, and the role that leadership can play in catalyzing that change. You can read the final output of the project here.  The financial system. The justice system. The education system. The healthcare system. The “insert system here” system. Go into any coffee shop in my neighborhood, Shaw, here in Washington, DC — or any other beacon of gentrification from the Mission District to Moscow or Johannesburg to Williamsburg — and you may overhear a hipster waxing philosophically about needing to “change the system.” But in my experience, when pressed, there’s a limited number of people who can explain what they’re referring to with the term “system.” For most, systems are simply some vague notional construct to lean on when speaking about things that are wrong with the world. That doesn’t mean those hipsters are wrong. It’s often true that those systems they’re speaking out against desperately need to change. However, if our understanding of a system only comes from our recognition that change somewhere on something is needed, how can we ever hope to actually achieve sustainable change? While countless definitions and interpretations exist, at the Global Knowledge Initiative we understand systems as a set of actors, including both individuals and institutions; interactions between those actors; and, an enabling environment that effects those actors (consisting of infrastructure, laws, cultural norms, etc.). All of these ingredients (actors, interactions, and enabling environment) are bound together in a distinct way that makes it (the system) perform specific functions and sets it apart from the rest of the world. With these four components — actors, interactions, enabling environment, and boundaries — we can analyze and understand any type of system under the sun. We also start to see that systems are all around us, manifesting in all sorts of ways, from very […]

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