So, you want to change systems?

Introduction to Systems Thinking

Introduction to Systems Thinking

When I was a kid, I used to dream about being a president.

Not the president, but a president of an irrelevant micronation.

All the way up to my adulthood, I used to imagine a brand-new country with no history and think about how I would run it, who would be there, and what kind of society I wanted to cultivate. 

Then I would apply all the new things I learn about philosophy, politics, education, and policy in the following years, to my little nation. It was my imaginary playground and helped me understand how the world works.

Perhaps a bit crazy for a child.

Nowadays, I stand here, having given up wanting to be a president.

Nowadays, I am more interested in taking matters into my own hands. 

My friends call it: “that social stuff”. 

Are they right? 

Is the “social stuff” a naive way of hoping for some positive change in the world? 

Do systems even change?

How? 

How can you think in systems? What does that even mean? 

What is systems thinking?

This is what this article is about.

Let’s talk about it. 

Right off the bat, I have some good news.

Change is one of the few things in the universe that stayed constant since the beginning of time.

Things change every second of every day. 

Another good news. Also, a spoiler alert. 

Systems also change all the time. 

So yes, it is possible. 

So, how do we save the environment? 

Well, that’s a bit more complex. (You will understand that pun later on if you don’t get it now.)

Let’s start.

This article is for all NGOs, public institutions, current or aspiring social innovators, social entrepreneurs, activists, and all people who are passionate about having a positive impact in the world. For the “naive” and courageous ones that dare to think that there is a better way. The article will not go into depth about systems science and practice. It will also not include lots of technical terminologies. It is written for beginners in systems thinking.

This article is over 6700 words long… (22+ pages)

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What do we mean by “systems”?

Of course. We have to start here. 

Going to keep this one short.

What are systems? 

Are we talking about education systems?

Are we talking about overfishing? 

Are we talking about switching from capitalism to eco-marxism?

Well, let’s start slow.

Here’s a simple definition of what systems are:

A system is ‘a set of things — people, cells, molecules or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time’

(Meadows, 2010)

That includes everything, the economic system, the financial system, the ecosystem, the education system, and more. 

In the beginning, it’s important to understand one characteristic of systems. 

Now, I will ask you a very simple question about your body. 

What do you use, to see

Think about it.

Did you say, my eyes? 

What do you use to hold on to something?

Did you say, my hands?

This is the regular way that we are wired. 

Light hits your retina. It sends electrical signals to your optic nerve as well as other parts of your brain. That processes the image and then we see.

That’s the simpler version of what happens anyhow.

In reality, your eyes are not the only thing you need to see. 

So, your eyes don’t see. You do. 

If you think your eyes see, or your hands hold things, Dr. Russell Ackoff suggests that there is a very easy way to find out if you’re right or wrong. 

You can take off your hand and put it on the table, and see if it holds on to anything. 

Ok. Please don’t detach your hand from your body.

You’re going to have to trust me on this one. 

How is this relevant? 

The most important thing you need to know in the beginning is that systems are more than the sum of their parts. 

Systems don’t function in the linear way we think. 

Let me give you an example by quoting Draper Kauffman

“…dividing the cow in half does not give you two smaller cows. You may end up with a lot of hamburger, but the essential nature of “cow” — a living system capable, among other things, of turning grass into milk — then would be lost. This is what we mean when we say a system functions as a “whole”. Its behavior depends on its entire structure and not just on adding up the behavior of its different pieces.”

Kauffman, 1980, p2

You can also think the other way around to see how systems are more than the sum of their parts.

I think we can all agree that 1+1=2.

However, in systems, 1+1 can equal a banana. 

1+1 can equal a banana today, goat tomorrow, and depending on the perspective, it could mean a table.

This is one of many reasons why our linear way of addressing problems in the world does not solve the challenges we are facing in the world. Our approach assumes that if we can manage to successfully put the 1 and 1 together, that we will get a 2.

We rarely do. 

So, where does this leave us?

I will talk about how systems thinking could change the world below.

Before we can move on, we first need to address some common misconceptions and common mistakes about systems practice.

Misconceptions and common mistakes about systems practice

  1. “We reached our goal, the system has changed. Mission accomplished.” There will never be a time when you could say that the mission is accomplished. There is not a finite end to changing a system. They need constant re-learning and adaptation, as the systems you want to change, also change constantly. 

    As Sterman and Quinn put it, changing systems is like “working on an airplane while it’s flying.”

    However, this also makes systems change work notoriously difficult to measure. There is a great panel discussion of measure system change that you can watch for free with a free digital pass to the Skoll World Forum. Check it out if you’re interested.
  1. “The thing is that the system is broken”. Systems are not broken. Systems do what they are designed to do. The best metaphor I have heard to explain this concept comes from Rob Ricigliano, the Systems and Complexity Coach for The Omidyar Group. He compares systems to a cloud. Clouds do what they are supposed to do. Sometimes it rains, hails, snows, but sometimes we have sunny days. While it is raining, the cloud is not broken. It does exactly what it was supposed to do. Consequently, there is not a broken piece in the cloud that makes it rain, for us to go and fix. Instead, we should aim to “unlock the forces in the system to change itself, instead of imposing change”. 

    This might take some getting used to for us. We define systems that do not work for everyone as “broken”. However, “the education system is broken” as a statement does not radiate the same mindset that you would need to approach the issue from a systems thinking perspective. Defining systems as “broken” makes the reasons more abstract than they are. This often forces people to respond with superficial answers as to why a system does not work for people, which stunts momentum for solutions. Instead try asking, who does the system work for? What are mindsets and mental models that keep us where we are?

Calling systems broken is not just incorrect. It does something a lot more important. It stops the conversation about systems change, implying that there is nothing we can do.

Calling systems broken is not just incorrect. It does something a lot more important. It stops the conversation about systems change, implying that there is nothing we can do.
  1. “The problem is…” Do you really know the problem? Usually, when you are trying to move to systems thinking, the urge is to point out the source of the problem right away. Especially, if you have been doing this line of work for a long time, you are also pretty confident in your assumptions as to what the source of the problem is. Also, if you are a specialist in an area, you might be tempted to assume that it has something to do with where your expertise lies.

    You’ve heard it before. There is the “they don’t care” narrative. There is the “if only we were in power…” narrative. There is the “they are the problem, people who vote this or that way is the problem” narrative. There is the “it’s all because of education” narrative. There is the “they are crazy” narrative. There are many more. The reality is complex problems also have complex and interdependent variables and we cannot fully predict them. Therefore, it is much harder to predict what the underlying problems are, and even harder to predict, what the outcome will be when we change those variables.

    This topic is for another time, but for now, you should know that systems thinking would invite you to fight the urge and jump to conclusions on what you think the answer is. Your biases might be hindering you to think in terms of systems. Don’t try to point out or solve things right away. Instead talk about your hypotheses with different industries, academics, NGOs, corporations, people, the public sector and whoever else is relevant. Truly understand what is resisting change before you claim to know the problem. You could start with a causal loop diagram or a system dynamics map

  2. “It’s because of this person…If only…” Avoid blaming people. Complex problems are never one person’s fault. If it is one person’s fault, it probably was not a complex problem, to begin with. You might be tempted to point out a certain elected official as the root cause of the problem.

    Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

    You now know the main common conceptions about systems practice. I think we are ready.

Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

What is systems thinking?

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about what systems thinking is.

 Systems thinking is an approach that largely uncovers three areas;

  • How the parts of a system interrelate 
  • How systems work throughout different time periods
  • How systems work in the context of larger systems

Systems thinking can be used in various areas, be it environmental, economic, organizational, or political. In this article, we are going to focus on how we can gain clarity of a system in order to use it for social innovation and systems entrepreneurship. In other words, how can we use systems thinking to approach the largest challenges of our societies?

Why systems thinking might be a better approach to how we deal with complex problems

Whether it is international aid or social entrepreneurship, we have been trying to create a positive impact in the world in different forms and methods. From homelessness to climate change, from biodiversity to quality education, governments and civil society work tirelessly every day to move the needle on a certain issue towards a certain outcome. 

And things are getting better in many cases. However, as our understanding of these challenges increase, we start to realize how many challenges of the world are interrelated. This brings us to think about a concept called complexity

So, what do we mean by complex issues? Does that only mean that they are difficult? Is it the same thing as complicated?

Well, not quite.

Let’s talk about the types of problems that we encounter in the impact world. 

“…complex problems are like raising a child. Your experience from your first child could help, but is not a guarantee by any means that the second child will (turn out the same)”

  1. Simple problems: These are problems that could be solved with some sort of protocol or a recipe. For instance, if your car is running empty, you could navigate to a gas station and fill up. It requires a protocol, but the protocol and the outcome of that protocol are predictable. You know that once you fill your car up, it is going to start working again.
  1. Complicated problems: Complicated problems require a bit more expertise to overcome, however, they are still solvable. With the same car, imagine that there is a leak in the fuel line. Maybe you cannot fix it or re-install a new line, but a mechanic, someone who has expertise could figure out where the leak is from, know if it can be fixed or if it needs to be replaced, and also execute the solution. Furthermore, if you wanted to do it yourself, you could learn about how your car works and do it yourself. There is a way to know the solution.
  1. Complex problems: On the other hand, complex problems are those that are based on relationships between different variables of influence. The outcome is reasonably predictable but cannot fully be known.

    I like the example given by Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman in this report about how the successful reform of Medicare could happen. They mention that complex problems are like raising a child. Your experience from your first child could help but is not a guarantee by any means that the second child will also be a success. (Whatever that means) Every child is different and no playbook has the exact same outcomes every time that it is implemented. 
  1. Chaotic problems: These are problems that neither be knowable nor be predictable. This might happen when the complex problems are left unattended for a critical period of time.
Simple problemsSolution can be known, and the outcome is predictable
Complicated problemsThe solution is harder to understand but it is still knowable
Complex problemsThe solution cannot fully be known, but moderately predictable
Chaotic problemsSolution cannot be known, and it is not predictable 

It is important to understand what kind of challenges you are dealing with before you choose your approach. In this article when we talk about using systems thinking for these challenges, we are talking about using it for complex problems.

Complexity and complex problems

So, what does this mean in our case? How does it apply to our approach to impact? What do we have to keep in mind? There are a couple of answers:

  1. Complex problems do not have a universal approach. There is no magic solution that works every time. The challenges with the education system here might be very different from the challenges in another country. Even in the same country, there is not one single way that would work to have that impact on the system.
  1. Complex problems cannot be solved by a single entity. The complexity of the problem implies that it affects many stakeholders, in many sectors, in many places. Systems thinking approach encourages all relevant stakeholders to work together, as no single entity has the answers. This rule applies regardless of how much power or resources you have, including governments.
  1. Measuring your impact is difficult. When dealing with complex problems, it is difficult to see the relation of causation between reasons, and it is often difficult to measure the change and the success.

How does this work in real life? 

A few years back, I was having a conversation about gender equality with the Head of Gender and Diversity of a multinational corporation. 

She had an unmatched passion for her cause. 

She was also extremely supportive. 

She still inspires me to this day.

However, every time I mentioned the word “social business” in a conversation, I could sense this facial expression that was thinking “I won’t break your spirit, but social business to help fix the gender wage gap? Not sure about that.”

Maybe that was just me and the chip on my shoulder. 

She had told me that there are regulations in place for large companies to report on their gender wage gap, but there are a lot of loopholes. 

“It’s easy to circumvent the regulations,” she says.

I ask her if she sees room for innovation here for a social business.

Her expression is back. 

Social innovation, social business…Lots of buzzwords.

In an effort to humor me and explain the problem she tells me:

“The issue is that it’s not the primary agenda in companies. They still have their daily business to worry about. They’re not NGOs. They have to comply, it’s a compliance issue for large companies.”

I’m in investigative mode. I ask her: “What if we expose them?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if we build a platform that includes everything that each large company in Austria is doing? We dig through their CSR reports, we call, we check up, we report, we read through all the fancy words and bulls***, and make them transparent. If it is not reported, it doesn’t exist. If it is not followed up on, it doesn’t exist. If the plans and projects stay plans and projects the next year, they don’t exist. We report on this regularly.”

She still seems unimpressed, but seems a little more interested, with an eyebrow raised, which gives me hope. 

I continue:

“Then we take this platform, and we market the living crap out of it in every nook and cranny that they recruit from. In each university, in each specialization, in every corner, they market in. We call them out and make everything transparent. We take the data, we make it transparent, and we don’t stop shouting it from the rooftops until it changes. So now, it’s a branding and recruitment issue. We make sure that we make it a problem. Would that get it up on the agenda?”

Her other eyebrow raises, she stops to think for a second. 

There is silence in the room. 

I am sitting confidently, in my relaxed but investigative manner, my rebellious spirit is on high alert, ready to keep digging and asking questions until I get to the bottom of this. 

She breaks the silence.

“Well. Yeah, that would probably get their attention.”

I must have started to get a smug look of victory on my face. She smiles and goes:

“Get yourself a good lawyer. But, yes.”

We look at each other and flash a courteous smile, almost as to remember why we are both here in this room. 

How is this related to systems change? 

Well, sometime after, I read the inspiring story of Ma Jun. 

Bear with me. This will all make sense. 

Ma Jun started his career in the early 90s working for a newspaper in China called South China Morning Post. He would research China’s environmental problems and ended up writing a book in 1999 called: “China’s Water Crisis”. After being selected as a Yale World Fellow in 2004, he founded his organization called the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing in 2006. 

Over the last four decades, China has experienced tremendous growth, resulting in the highest rate of poverty alleviation in the world. Largely credited to this economic growth, China has managed to pull hundreds of millions of people above the poverty line. 

However, this came at a cost. 

Pollution. 

Air, soil, and water pollution, exposing millions of people to health hazards.

How do we address this now?

Initially, the challenge China was having was a lack of regulation. So, they introduced environmental laws and regulations, that are quite similar to the ones we have in Europe.

However, as always, it was the actual implementation of the laws and regulations that became the problem. This is a story that we can relate to here. However, a lot of the time, the civil society and NGOs can push towards this type of implementation through the legal system by lobbying and suing the actors that do not abide by the laws and regulations. This did not work in China in this instance. 

To make things worse, the structure of the local governments was not conducive to the successful implementation of these regulations. In China, you had the environmental agencies who would be sitting under the local governments. However, the local government’s goals are tied to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate, focused on more production.

GDP growth is a ludicrous metric to measure environmental well-being. It often has the opposite effect. You can guess how this incentive did not work. 

So, what do we do? 

Can one organization do what many before them and the existing ecosystems in civil society were unable to do?

If pollution is what we are addressing here, how can we keep companies accountable for the pollution that they create if:

  • the regulations are too little too late?
  • They are not being implemented by the government for several reasons?

Of course don’t forget that this is in a country with millions of factories, with over 1 billion people.

You are in an organization with 3 people.

Most of us would be right to be discouraged and have every reason to believe that there is nothing or very little we can do. 

Then Ma Jun found two things: the leverage point, and the way to make it happen. 

A quick note before we delve into leverage points: Leverage points are a controversial topic in systems thinking, largely because they’re misunderstood. A lot of systems thinkers don’t believe in them either. Then again, a lot of systems thinkers don’t believe systems exist either. I won’t rant about the pessimism in systems science. I encourage you to do your own research as this concept is contested.

OK, back to the article.

As the systems theorist, Donella Meadows said, a leverage point is where “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” They are thought to be those acupuncture points where a strategic intervention could produce lasting and positive change.

It’s essentially the area where minimum input can result in the maximum outcome.

In this case, it was transparency.

In specific words: data. 

How could we keep any company accountable without showing or proving the negative impact they have on the environment first? 

That would be tough to do.

So, that’s what he chose to focus on. 

In 2006, IPE, consisting of Ma Jun and two colleagues, started to create a national database of pollution.

3 people.

Alright.

Now, the second challenge. 

How? 

Up until 2008, even data about air quality was nowhere to be found, let alone all other data on the pollution of private companies. 

It was sensitive, secret data. 

Remember, the court system is ineffective, the government support is inadequate. 

How can you make companies report to some website about all the negative impact they are having in the world? 

Here is how he did it. 

First try: IPE started to look high and low for any data points they could find that could give them meaningful indicators and found 2000 records of violations.

Alongside their hard work and other variables, the smog problem in China had become a bigger and unmistakable visible problem. So, it was the right timing for an intervention like this. As a response, in May 2008, China adopted “a pair of sweeping pollution disclosure measures that for the first time required government bodies at all levels to make certain pollution information publicly available.”

While that sounds like a lot of progress, remember that China is home to millions of factories. The job was not done.

So, to ensure implementation, they decided to create an index to help assess these measures: Pollution Information Transparency Index alongside their partner Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

They used this index to assess 120 major cities in China, not only to make the data transparent between and within the cities but also to encourage the sharing of best practices.

That’s where it started to get interesting. 

In the first year, they had 2000 records.

2016, they had 60,000. 

2017, they had 160,000.

2018, they had 320,000.

Ma Jun supports the idea that transparency is subordinate to regulation, but it is of greater importance. But, enforcement still is the most important step.

To push for enforcement, he believes that you need to have toolkits. 

So, he turned to the people. To quote Ma, he believed that this shift would only come from “extensive public participation”.

These records that they have collected led them to initiate another project called the Blue Map alongside a group of 25 NGOs. With the push of public pressure to address the air pollution in China, they requested to get real-time data off government websites measuring water pollution. Amidst all the public pressure and the momentum that the awareness around the smog problem gained, the government agreed. 

Today with this free app, you can not only monitor and find out the worst polluters, but users can also share data with each other as well as report “black and smelly rivers” directly to the ministries. Namely, these represent the 2,059 most polluted rivers in China. Users can take photos, issue complaints, where the government is required to respond within seven days. Afterwards, the users can use the app to follow up to see what the government is doing about it.

This transparency of data does not only help the government but also the companies who outsource their activities in China. Since brands like Apple are under pressure from civil society, they refrain from having contracts with factories that are participating in this level of pollution practices.

The pressure this put on the factories was immense. They realized this when they observed a large steel factory that had very high levels of pollution according to their records. When they dug deeper, they found out that this was a government-owned factory and thought that all hope was lost. In the end, the feedback from the people online was so substantial, that they had no chance to shut down the most polluting arm of this factory.

What Ma Jun, his team, and collaborators understood two things very well: the inhibitors, and the enablers. They understood what factors are standing in your way, and what factors can enable you to unlock change.

InhibitorsEnablers
Little to no government supportThe trend of sustainability and increase of awareness due to the smog problem
Lack of effective judicial systemThe vast development of IT technology 
The sensitivity of data sharingOther NGOs and supporters
Lack of political incentivesAnd more…
And more…

Is our job done here? 

No.

Remember what was mentioned in the beginning about how systems are not finite games. 

It is more like working on a plane as it’s flying. 

So, this project will still need learning and constant adaptation. 

However, it does display the power of taking action in a complex environment.

They pollute. It’s not because morally they have a problem, but more because the mechanism now is rewarding those who cut corners to save cost.” – Ma Jun

How could systems thinking apply to social innovation and social entrepreneurship?

Let’s start with a real-life example. 

How do we integrate engaging, scalable, and ongoing education about social and environmental issues in every classroom in the world?

At PRIME MOVERS we focus on three areas: waste and food waste, gender equality, and challenges of digitalization.

We also have a three-stage process in creating and implementing our work. 

It’s very simple; Understand, Co-create and Implement.

We use systems thinking to understand the challenge we are facing and see where we can focus on for the most impact in changing the state of that system. 

To start with, you can think of systems thinking having two main goals; gaining clarity in understanding the challenge, and identifying areas for leverage

What does this mean? 

Let me show you. 

Step 1: Understand

The first thing in the understanding process is to set limits to your system. If what you are facing is world hunger, that might be too big to address. It might be better to re-think your strategy and start with a region with a special focus; infant malnutrition focusing on stunting, in Bihar, India.

So, for instance, we don’t focus on “Waste”, but one of our ventures focuses on responsible consumption of textiles in Austria.

It’s crucial to mention that this focus is not the vision of our organization. You can keep your grand and inspiring vision. That’s the way they are supposed to be. This is merely an approach and mindset that will get you closer to your vision. 

So, how do we understand the problem and find areas of leverage? 

Throughout the year, we talk to academics, NGOs, and companies to get insights from each side. 

You might be thinking, well, there are conferences and working groups who do this already.

We identified that in order to get the most useful insights, we need to strip professionals and employers off their titles and talk to them on another level. This is very difficult if not impossible to do when the person is called to represent their company at an event or a working group. 

Therefore, we sit one-on-one with these three stakeholders and have a meaningful and honest conversation that lasts about an hour. We don’t guide them to answer questions the way we want or influence the process. We have general guiding questions that we ask, and we delve deeper when we feel like there is more to explore in a certain topic. 

We then go through the insights and understand the interrelations between the issues that they talk about, and also have a clear picture on how the stakeholders interact and interrelate with each other. We do further qualitative research to support our interviews.

We essentially break the silos in a very convenient way for all parties involved. You can also try this by implementing what is called a group model building.

Once we get to a certain level of understanding, we sometimes make these interrelations into a map. This is called system mapping. It shows the relationships between the factors creating the challenge you are tackling.

This is the first step when it comes to understanding. Understand from different stakeholders, involve them in the process and understand resistance. 

The second step is to find leverage. 

If we picture change in systems as a pull and push game, finding leverage is to pull and push not just hard, but also smart. 

Where can we intervene to create the most output towards my goal of changing the state of this system? 

Step 2: Co-create

Once we find a leverage point, we co-create potential solutions. This is our social innovation process. 

Every year, we bring these leverage points and problem areas to our annual conference and community: ONE DAY. (www.oneday.at)

There we work with experts and passionate people to create innovative solutions to these problem areas. 

Ideas that change the world? 

Well, not quite.

Ideas are easy. Implementation is the main challenge. 

So, naturally, the third step is to implement it. 

Step 3: Implement

We went through systems thinking and social innovation. 

The way we implement is rooted in social entrepreneurship. 

We take some of the ideas we like, bring them back to the experts and get further opinions on them. If it aligns with our resources, we take on the implementation of the idea along with our partners. If not, we connect these ideas with existing social entrepreneurship networks along with our research. Would you like to be one of those organizations that spread this in your network? Contact us!

Understand. Co-create. Implement. 

For us, this means: Systems thinking + Social Innovation + Social Entrepreneurship

Similar processes have also recently been talked about as “systems entrepreneurship”.

Social entrepreneurship is not only about bringing new products, services, or innovation to the table. It is also about diffusing existing ones or simply connecting the dots. Taking the initiative and making it happen is what a social entrepreneur is. That only happens when you can see the system in a different way than we have been taught to.

This process in real life

Let’s make it all a lot more concrete with one of our ventures: Mission Liftoff;

We have a belief. We believe that ONE DAY, we will live in a world that we are proud of. In this case, our mission is to integrate education about the social and environmental challenges we face in every classroom in the world.

How?

I will break down how we are aiming for that mission step by step. 

Step 1: We use systems thinking to understand the problem. We analyze the existing ecosystem to comprehend what is standing in our way.

Very simply put, to do this you can map out;

  • the enablers: these are people, organizations, entities, interest groups, and all other stakeholders that enable or could enable you in this process of changing something.
  • the inhibitors: these are the opposite of the enablers. What are the structures in place that are inhibiting your process? 
    • Explore why that is. No. “it’s all political”, “they would lose votes”, “it’s just all capitalism” is not good enough. Use the Iceberg Model to help you identify mental models and perspectives. 

So, through research and interviews about the ecosystem in Austria and beyond. Here are some findings:

Challenge 1: Ministries do not think civil society can play a role in innovating the education sector.

Challenge 2: Education-related efforts, lobbies, and negotiations are difficult to scale as education systems are very different from region to region in Austria.

Challenge 3: The school system in Austria can get notoriously bureaucratic and political.

Alright, let’s move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Innovation. Understand what exists, what has been tried and failed, and make hypotheses as to why that might be the case. Talking about exploring what has been tried, check out the Impact Gaps Canvas, developed by the research of Daniela Papi-Thornton. This will help you map out what I mentioned above. 

Status Quo:

  • There are a handful of organizations in Austria that are doing a few workshops a year about certain social or environmental issues, but they fail to institutionalize it for different reasons. A lot of “lone wolves” in the ecosystem.
  • These workshops are often not appearing regularly to one group of kids. They have 1-2 touchpoints for the children.
  • Lesson plans, PDFs, workshops are already available for teachers online 
  • Funding that goes to SDG education focuses on dissemination and implementation power over systemic transformation or innovation. Typically, the organizations will do a pilot project in a few countries, do an impact measurement, keep their output and materials online, and move on to the next funded project. 
  • In Austria, the Ministry also has produced educational materials to be used in classrooms
  • In Austria, teachers are obliged to do further education regularly. For this, they could technically choose to educate themselves on the Sustainable Development Goals. However, most don’t for a variety of reasons.
  • Education about the world’s challenges that is ongoing, engaging, and scalable is difficult to come by.

So, you have different avenues here as a social entrepreneur. 

What do we do? You could do several things. Here are some examples. You could;

  • Try to lobby for this through the regular way. However, it will take you several years and if you are lucky and powerful enough, you can manage to push one topic through to the official syllabus. Also, your local efforts will not scale to other regions. Another disadvantage of this is that it is tied to party politics. Your efforts might be nullified depending on who is in the administration.
  • Create networks and connections with heads of schools across the region so you can do a few workshops a year about the SDGs. However, you have challenges with funding these activities, you are not making ongoing contact with the same kids, and your faith is in the hands and the mercy of whoever is the head of the schools. 
  • Do a few workshops a year – which is also great. 
  • Or find a way to do this that addresses all the above. 

Step 3: Social entrepreneurship. This is the less talking, more doing part. Now, ideas are easy. Implementation is what is more challenging. Why is social entrepreneurship important? What does it serve? You can read by clicking here if you are interested.

There is a clear gap between the content that is available and the adoption of this content by educators.

Why are teachers not using these materials we have online?

Problem validation

Well, let’s talk to them. And talk we did. 

There seem to be three main reasons;

  1. They are not aware of it. The funded organizations that created these documents have no incentive to spread them to teachers outside their project scope. 
  2. They are prepared by experts and not designed specifically for teachers that do not know about this issue. 
  3. Usability is very low. Teachers don’t have the time to decipher a 60-page .pdf by an entity, using scientific language (see reason 2)

So what we need is to build a platform that allows for an 

  • Ongoing education about these issues 
  • In a scalable and engaging way
  • Including a feedback loop between the creators and the teachers so the platform is attractive to educators. 
  • Very easy to adopt by educators

Idea

We decided to build an online platform where teachers can download lesson plans about the social and environmental challenges. Teachers can sign up to the platform and download an easy-to-use lesson plan, including the PowerPoint presentation with notes. The presentations have all the notes in them, the supporting document explains the challenge they are running a workshop on in one visual. No bureaucratic permissions are needed, and it takes 30 mins for teachers to get ready for the workshop.

It’s called Mission Liftoff.

Sometimes, innovation does not come from what you do (the product/service), but it comes from how you do it. This is called process innovation.

How? 

Focusing on the user

Let’s understand who we are trying to build a product for. We have held many customer interviews with teachers to understand them. Here is a very short summary.

Pain pointsProduct value
Very busy, with diverse responsibilitiesSaves time in planning classes 
Hard to gauge what class in the syllabus can then replace this education withSomething different for you and your class
Not all classes are equipped with projectorsReady to use (really ready to use. Including the slides with the notes inserted, curated resources for them to have an introduction on the topic, further reading, explanation of all the games, activities, and more)
 No uniform tools that all teachers use for regular responsibilitiesUses understandable language
Keeps the end-user (children) in mind
Addresses the existing pain points of teachers in mind (What class can they do this in, in the existing syllabus of Austria for e.g.)

Building the product

We are building the lesson plans and the platform according to all this feedback we get from the end-user, the teachers. After we build our lesson plans, we find teachers that agreed to test them out in their classes. We go there and watch them and take notes. Then, we interview them afterwards and get insights about how challenging it was to use the platform or the lesson plan. 

I won’t go into too much detail about building products. That is for another time. But that has been our process thus far. If you are reading this article in the distant future, there might be a link below with an update to what happened to Mission Liftoff and its impact. 

So, do systems change?

Absolutely. Change is still one of the only constants we have. 

And it is not going anywhere. 

Throughout your journey, I would invite you to practice non-judgment and to stay humble in order to learn and understand problems. Observe and explore inhibitors through generative dialogues. Think in win-win scenarios for your ecosystem. Use progress to drive you and others, not discourage yourself or others. Remember that proclaiming that nothing has changed because the world is not how you imagine can be detrimental to what you want to achieve. Positive change is happening. Find out how you can be a part of it. If you feel that it is not, find out how you can create it.

In any case, don’t forget the following: 

The question is not whether or not you can be a part of changing systems. The question is what would happen if you didn’t try.

Until next time,

Okan McAllister

This article is over 6700 words long… (22+ pages)

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