How to Harness the Power of Systems Change

Learn how theories of systems change can help you transform your company into an industry leader.

Thanks in part to Darcy Winslow’s leadership, Nike Inc. is a worldwide trailblazer in reducing waste and toxins in footwear and apparel manufacturing supply chains. But the company didn’t always care about the issue. The change started when Winslow asked a simple question: “What’s in our product?” and helped trigger a deep, new, systemic approach within the organization and the extended value chain.

Now Winslow is a co-founder and managing partner of the Academy for Systemic Change, a 10-year initiative with a mission to help changemakers learn to understand and leverage the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems, in order to act more in tune with natural processes as they try to make a difference. We spoke with her and another co-founder, systems-change guru Peter Senge, to create this quick-and-dirty guide to their way of thinking. “Understanding systems change is the key to eventually repositioning your whole business as a real leader in issues that historically no one even thought were your concern,” Senge says. Here are 11 things to know about systems change to get you started.

1. All real change is “systems change”

“It can be a very off-putting term,” Senge says. “A lot of people interpret it as, ‘That’s what CEOs or presidents of countries do.’” But all real, substantive change involves systems changes, whether in a company, an industry, or even just a family.

2. Change is both external and internal

Sometimes the most obvious changes are external — rules, policies, formal structures, etc. “But those external aspects are a reflection of our assumptions,” Senge says. “External aspects don’t change without changes in people’s underlying mental models and ways of thinking.”

3. Systems change is absolutely necessary

The world’s most pressing problems are big, systemic ones: climate change, poverty, income inequality, etc. “This type of thinking is becoming more critical now than ever, given the trends of what’s happening in the world,” Winslow says.

4. Systems change doesn’t have to come from the top

Anybody within an organization can initiate change by engaging stakeholders to create a vision of a new future (see “4 Questions to Jumpstart Systems Change,” next page).

5. Go beyond a problem- solving mindset

When you start by focusing too much on what you want to change, that moves you into what Winslow calls a “siloed or reductionistic approach,” and you tend to stall. Instead, she recommends that you flip the language from a problem to an opportunity by asking, “What is the future we want to create?” She says, “A creative orientation is a much more positive, high-potential way of engaging the system.”

6. Get started by getting started

“If it’s a long journey, that means almost by definition you’ve got to start by focusing on things that are far, far short of the ultimate goal,” Senge says. “But those are things you can actually get moving on.” Build coalitions and collaborations around them. Know that it’s not about getting the vision perfect from the start, it’s about getting going.

7. Gather the right partners

No matter what challenge you’re facing, you can’t do much of anything by yourself. Recruit people who have passion about the issue, because systems change happens over a long period and you need people who will retain their commitment and bring others in. Also pay attention to those in formal roles of authority. “It’s not one or the other; it’s always an intersection of the two,” Senge says. It would be naïve to neglect to bring the key decision-makers on board, but don’t get caught up in thinking that you can’t doing anything without that power. “A lot of times people in power positions play a key role, but they don’t play the key roles in actually leading change,” explains Winslow.

8. Find your key question

Sometimes change starts with asking a simple question. “For us at Nike, it was, ‘Do you know what’s in your product?’” Winslow says. Other companies have asked, “What resources do we need to be able to make our product?” Even if your eventual goal is to be perceived as an industry leader on social issues, make sure to anchor the question in something pertinent to the business. “None of this is charity,” Senge says. “If you’re doing it because you think somebody should do it and you want to be a do-gooder or make people feel good, forget it.”

9. Keep your sights on the achievable

Look for solutions in what Senge calls “the shallow end of the pool” — something that’s immediate, relevant, and where you could start to see results within about six months. “When you first get started, you can have this grand vision and it can be very daunting to engage the organization in something so radical,” Winslow says. “Too often people dive right into the deep end and drown.” It takes years to get to the point where a company may be open to collaborating with competitors, for example.

10. Learn to be a translator

Even once you’ve found a solid question to address, you may have to do some work to make its business relevance clear. Try to understand what may prevent someone in a particular role from engaging. What information is missing? Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. If they sit in the financial world, how do they see the organization? How do they see their future?

11. Get off your soapbox

“A lot of times people get motivated by big issues and they become a zealous advocate, which is understandable, but it usually doesn’t get you very far,” Senge says. “People feel like you’re pointing fingers at them.” Anger and fear can motivate people to react for a short period, but they don’t bring out creativity or imagination. “You’ve got to make the work fun and exciting,” Senge says.


For more about the Academy For Systemic Change, go to

This article appeared in Issue 10 | Nov/Dec 2016

In Issue 10, we’re looking at the game changers – the people, ideas, and companies that have the ability to shift the entire paradigm of their industry or change the game for good. In an exclusive partnership with Gamechangers 500, we profiled the top 25 for-benefit companies in the world. We also have interviews with Next Jump Co-CEOs Meghan Messenger and Charlie Kim, who spoke to us about building a $2 billion company based on culture; Tom Chi – the co-founder of Google X – who spoke to us about rapid prototyping; the CEO of Next Energy Technology who detailed the company’s breakthrough energy technologies; and Jed Emerson, the Godfather of Impact Investing, who reflected on the future of conscious business. Plus: how to shift your workplace culture starting with you, a look at the new job skills needed in the current economy, and what it takes to have people-first leadership.

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