I’d like to offer some thoughts about systems change and impact, based on the insights from tuning my work into some of the cutting edge research about complexity science and its implications for how we approach complex challenges.

** This post is an excerpt from my (too long) post about Targeted Systems Change which you can read here. Make sure you have a coffee ready though.**

There’s a common theory of change which seems to have swept across the social sector, but the problem is — it rarely works as intended.

The idea is that we try something, often as a Pilot, and then if it works, we scale it up. Yet, all too often the ‘scaled up’ version doesn’t have the same effect as the pilot. Why is this? In a word: complexity.

Complexity denotes that you can do exactly the same thing, to exactly the same part of the systems, and you can get a different result. Causality is not fixed. Emergence is a dominant characteristic of living systems.

I know I’m not saying anything new about Pilots — people have been saying this for awhile…

"In the UK, so many government programmes of change are predicated on this theory of pilot and roll-out. It holds true for many global corporations as well. Invariably, the successes of the pilots (and there are often many successes) fail to be replicated at scale in the wider system. We notice this but continue to pursue the same model in each new change initiative. If we are to break this pattern we need to consider afresh the way in which we attempt major change."

- Doomed to Failure - John Atkinson (Heart of the Art, 2017)
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Alternative Approaches To Scaling

Well, if we’re not going to ‘scale up’ a pilot that has worked, what could we do instead? How could we have the scale of impact which we need, given the size of the challenges which face us locally and globally, today?

Here’s three alternative models which I am interested in exploring further, borrowed from ecological approaches to replication:

  1. Swarm.
    Much of the effort that goes into scaling efforts is about centralising the coordination, monitoring or otherwise. What we’ve learnt about swarm behaviour in nature, is that it relies on self-organised, collective behaviour. There are some examples around the world of decentralised movements and causes, but more experiments are needed in how to better use this approach for systems change.
  2. Replicate + Adapt.
    The driving force of evolution is the constant cycle of replication and adaptation. Incentivising this approach for systems change activities could avoid the need for scaling up individual efforts, by significant replication of the core of an intervention, which is then localised to a specific context. For example, a funder might recognise the value in this approach, and fund a systems change initiative with explicit budget to open source the intervention (e.g. service / product blueprints and handbooks) so that others could replicate. Having taken Lifehack (our social lab on youth mental health in NZ) in this direction, I am deeply surprised this doesn’t happen more often.
  3. Cascade.
    This is a nascent thought, but I regularly see this pattern in nature whereby a species of animal or tree creates conditions for many others to live. Whether it’s a beaver dam, a tree with a large canopy, or a hermit crab, this pattern is common and has potential to be explored. I could see a role for ‘keystone’ interventions which create a sort of beach head into a system where a complex challenge (like obesity for example) may exist. These keystone interventions would explicitly be part-funded to share insights, relationships and resources which allow other, niche interventions, to get started and make a difference.

As I say, these ideas are fieldnotes — ponderings which others may find useful, that I intend to pursue in the coming years, and am keen to hear from other people about.

Perhaps you know people who are already working in these ways? Perhaps you have good examples of ‘impact ecosystems’ being established with one or more of these patterns?

Whatever sparks, I’d love to hear more about it.

Bonus Resource: If you're interested in different forms of practice to Pilot > Rollout scaling, I suggest you take a look at my case study and free resource on Experimentation Culture.