Lessons Learned, Part II – Systems Change

From the fall of 2007 until recently, I served as Director of Capital Innovation at Living Cities, a collaborative of major foundations and financial institutions committed to improving the lives of low income people in American cities. As I leave, I find myself reflecting on lessons learned over the last 6.5 years. This period included the design and implementation of the Integration Initiative (TII), an ambitious effort to foster systems change that would “move the needle” for low-income residents of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The first blog in this series focused on some reflections on civic infrastructure. Here, I’ll consider what we learned about our goal of transforming systems.

Systems change : appealing and elusive

Virtually everyone involved in the Integration Initiative agreed that the key systems affecting the lives of low income people, such as public education and workforce development among many others, produce poor results and need to be fundamentally transformed. There was also widespread agreement that individual projects and programs, however successful they were at helping the people who participated in them, were not enough to “move the needle” and produce results at a scale approaching the scale of the problem. And yet, we found it difficult to keep sites focused on changing systems rather than starting, tweaking or scaling programs.

Why was it so tough for thoughtful people to focus on systems change?

Defining systems change: First, we struggled with defining systems change in a way that was easy for sites to grasp. To us, systems change was not just about new policies. It meant adopting new ways of working, redirecting funding, making changes that affected people beyond the participants in a specific program. The external evaluators we contracted for TII offered their definition: “transformation of stakeholder relationships/perspectives/boundaries that may serve as an entry point into shifting the process of how things are done.” But if systems change is the goal, what do you do on Monday morning?

Sometimes the following example helped clarify things: a community college in New England that wanted to raise student completion rates created a pilot program in which “college navigators” helped students to overcome the obstacles they faced as they worked towards their degree. The program achieved excellent results, but was expensive and therefore impossible to scale. The institution realized that what they needed to do was not to hire more college navigators, but to identify and remove the barriers that got in the way of student progress. Adding navigators was a programmatic solution to a problem; using the program to highlight areas where system changes were necessary was a step in the direction of systems change and more in line with what we hoped the sites would do. Understanding when a program was just a program, and when it was a demonstration that paved the way for systems change remained an elusive distinction.

Work around vs. work through: Another challenge to focusing on systems change was that the people involved in TII sites were “doers,” used to seeing bad situations and figuring out how they could make a difference. Often, system failures involved entrenched practices, incompetent or overwhelmed employees or political compromises beyond the control of the individuals with whom we worked. Doers often make a difference by working around the obstacles in their path. Yet a fundamental tenet of TII was to work through, not around, systems failures. Rewiring systems is often a long-term proposition, and requires the buy-in of leaders empowered to make important changes. Identifying the changes that needed to be made and getting the support of the leaders who can make them is easier said than done. When sites were missing the commitment they needed, they tended to default to the kinds of changes that the participants could make themselves.

The lure of the project: Third, TII participants tended to be quite passionate about the people in their communities—the kids whose education was inadequate, the adults who were struggling to find work because of poor math skills or a history of incarceration. Many of the Initiative’s leaders came from backgrounds in social work, community activism, or direct service. Given a choice between using limited resources of time and money to do something concrete for people in need, versus pushing to get sometimes reluctant leaders to adopt new practices, it was hard for the sites to choose the systems direction. We sometimes called this the “romance of the project”—the understandable temptation to do something concrete rather than concentrate on the more amorphous but essential systems level.

This tendency to do something concrete was often reinforced by the new emphasis in the non-profit world on producing measureable results. Evaluation is moving from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes, but it is still easier and faster to measure outcomes associated with a program than it is to measure the outcomes of systems change.

Disrupting established relationships: Finally, participants in TII were also members of their local community who had to get up every day and manage their network of relationships. Taking on tough systems challenges sometimes meant calling out people and organizations that were not functioning effectively. As we were repeatedly told during site visits, calling other people’s organizations dysfunctional was not a way to win friends and influence people—it was impolite and uncomfortable at best, and at worst it could imperil the ability of “disruptive” individuals to remain effective in their hometown. As TII staff, we had to remember that we would visit sites twice a year; people at the TII tables had to live in the places they were trying to change.

Notwithstanding the challenges enumerated above, the TII sites did grapple with changing systems that were delivering poor results for low-income people. Some things we learned:

  • BHAGs: One way to keep focus on changing systems rather than tweaking programs was to set a “big, hairy, audacious goal” – a target ambitious enough that it could not be achieved through programs alone. BHAGs had the potential to inspire people and to get them to lift their sights and think differently. Although sites were reluctant to promise results they were not sure they could deliver, the sites that set big goals did find they had a galvanizing effect.

  • Complexity: The systems we want to change are made up of human beings. The systems are complex, interdependent and emergent, not hierarchical and linear. Much as we are tempted to specify processes that go from inputs=>outputs=>outcomes=>impacts in a neat chain, the real world is much messier. Systems evolve and adapt, and small changes can have disproportionately large effects. This is an opportunity for leaders seeking to affect the behavior of systems. Identifying critical leverage points can generate big results, but leaders must be willing to experiment and improvise rather than assuming that a detailed master plan stands a chance.

  • Beyond best practice: Although sites could learn from each other and be inspired by examples from other places, we found that the notion of “best practices” was often oversold. In changing systems, context and leadership matter a great deal. Success came from building trust among the leaders at the collaborative table and having difficult conversations about what was not working more than it did from adopting a dramatic new idea.

  • Patience: Funders tend to be somewhat impatient, but systems change can take a long time. We constantly had to remind ourselves that although the first phase of TII lasted three years, it might take a decade for the results of the work to become manifest. We also found that the site that seemed to us to be making the most progress could change from visit to visit, and that leaps forward and setbacks were more common than steady progress.

As our evaluators found many TII sites made important strides towards changing systems. Just as important, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston adopted a clear systems change lens for its Working Cities Challenge launched in January of this year. We expect that both initiatives will result in meaningful improvements in the places they are working.

Next up: lessons about capital.