Systems Changers 2018-19 brought systems thinking and service design methodologies into practice in three core stages

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Systems Changers was a learning programme that introduced frontline practitioners to systems and design approaches, and supported them to test out how they can achieve wider systemic impact for young people through their live practice projects. You can read about our frontline practitioners'  learnings on Medium.

We delivered this brilliant initiative with the Lankelly Chase Foundation and The Point People and are working with our partners to explore how to develop on the programme’s learning for the future. 

The Systems Changers programme has ended now, but if you’re interested in finding out more please get in touch.  


The programme’s 3-step approach to systems change

Systems Changers 2018-19 brought systems thinking and service design methodologies into practice in three core stages: 

1. Seeing the System

Mapping the systems that frame young people's lives, our work with them and the problems we're trying to tackle.

This first stage helped practitioners to consider the following questions: 

  • What is a ‘system’ and what do the systems we work in really look like? 
  • How can we identify all the various people, agencies, processes and dynamics involved in the systems that shape young people’s lives and our work with them? 
  • What is our own role in a system? How are we positioned in relation to others? What power do we have ourselves to influence the system? 
  • What is it about our current systems that stop us from being able to tackle the multiple disadvantage faced by young people? 
  • Where are the blockages and good practice examples in the system? 

Mapping systems 

To help practitioners answer these questions and be able to start to make wider change to help young people, the Systems Changers programme began by introducing them to systems thinking and systems mapping. 

We asked practitioners to explore how systems behave in order to reveal the different dynamics, emotions and cultures at play. Practitioners then considered how these elements of a system might be able to adapt, or if they are more resistant to change. 

We supported practitioners to listen to, observe and question what's around them. We encouraged them to take a close look at the 'dark matter' of a system - what its rules, structures and norms are that influence the way they are able to work with young people. 

Developing collective insight 

The Systems Changers programme exposed professionals to different perspectives across their systems and prompted awareness that whilst complex societal problems may not have one definitive solution, it is within frontline professionals’ power to influence change in multiple ways. 

Throughout the programme, we supported practitioners to amplify their expert voice and tell compelling stories about the problems they're trying to tackle. This helped them to build a community of colleagues across their systems who can collaborate based on a shared understanding of the issues. Collective insight was a core underpinning of Systems Changers – working with colleagues across a system to create a shared knowledge about the system that would not be possible individually. 

Design approaches 

This first stage of the Systems Changers programme also started to introduce professionals to being ‘design-led’ – considering how they can use design tools to test out and enact ideas for change in collaboration with young people and other partners. 

Some of the approaches and tools we used to do this included: 

  • Systems mapping 
  • Rich pictures 
  • User design 
  • Journey mapping 
  • Storytelling 

2. Finding the Flex

Identifying opportunities in systems for changing how we work and testing new ideas.

Once colleagues identified the multiple people, organisations and structures in their systems, the next stage of the Systems Changers programme gave practitioners the tools to understand the relationships, influences, gaps or flexibility between them. 

Exploring the following questions allowed practitioners to identify where opportunities for change might exist: 

  • Which parts of the system have influence over other parts and what are the effects of this influence? 
  • If we face a problem in one part of the system – how can we understand the range of causes or influences on it? 
  • Are there any unintended consequences of behaviour in one part of the system on another? 
  • How can we identify the best place in a system to act to make the most effective and sustainable change? 

Identifying opportunities for change 

This part of the programme helped practitioners to understand systems dynamics, what elements of a system appear fixed, and where there might be room for movement. We taught practitioners how to use tools such as multiple cause diagrams to help them see the effects that actions or decisions in one part of a system may result in somewhere else. 

We unpicked personal, organisational and system responses to change to understand how we can best bring our colleagues along with us, and why some parts of a system might be resistant to change. 

The programme helped practitioners to break down large-scale societal or structural problems facing young people into more tangible and manageable issues that can be acted upon now and in the future. We did this through using tried-and-tested design methods to design simple prototypes – allowing practitioners to develop their ideas into testable solutions. 

Some of the approaches and tools we used to do this included: 

  • Multiple cause diagrams or causal loop diagrams 
  • Timescale and influence axes (to break down complex problems and map multiple approaches to tackling them) 
  • Prototyping – designing and testing ideas and responses to a problem 

3. Making Change Happen

Implementing and scaling up the interventions that change systems for the better and for the future

Building upon their ability to see the systems that frame young people's lives, and where opportunities for flexibility lie, this last stage of the Systems Changers programme explored different approaches to making positive and sustainable change to the systems affecting young people’s lives.  

This part of the Systems Changers programme asked these questions: 

  • How can we apply our systemic learning and approaches to making change happen? 
  • Who do we need to work with in order to make change happen? Who are our allies? 
  • How do we build relationships with colleagues and young people which are based on trust and authenticity? 
  • How can we build confidence and skills across our organisations to work in more systemic ways? 
  • How can we share our approaches so that we make change as wide-scale as possible? 

Testing and scaling change 

In this final stage of the programme, practitioners implemented all their learning about systemic thinking and design approaches through live projects. These projects were built into practitioners’ everyday frontline practice, and where possible involved young people so that their views, wishes and experiences were part of any change.  

Practitioners learned how to reflect on and adapt experiments on an iterative basis, in conjunction with colleagues and partners – taking a ‘test and learn’ approach and learning how to ‘fail safely’. Practitioners were encouraged to communicate their learning to colleagues and wider sector, becoming advocates and peer educators on systemic approaches.