Stage 6.6  Transforming the System-I: From Item Change to System Change

Throughout most of the Guide we have discussed change as if it were a discrete phenomenon, an activity or a set of behaviors or artifacts that can be added to a system to make it work better or achieve more. This is a useful way to look at change, especially at the beginning, because it allows us to isolate specific steps and stages and to lay down some rules of behavior that will guide the would-be change agent through clear benchmarks and on to a definable point of success. It is also true that merely by adding discrete innovations to a system we are probably improving the system as a whole. Yet there will come a time when we should turn our attention away from these specific innovative projects and toward the goal of changing the system as a whole in more fundamental ways. This is a more radical goal and perhaps a more dangerous one, but we should not conclude the Guide without addressing these larger issues of system change.


Getting to more fundamental concerns
reprise of stage 0 and stage 2 at a system-shaking level

System change happens when the people of a system get down to dealing with the most fundamental concerns that they have as individuals and groups. Yet it is exceptionally difficult to get people to really take a serious look at what is wrong with the way they are. It is difficult for at least four reasons.

  • First of all, the fundamental concerns are large; perhaps to many they may seem overwhelming.
  • Second, these concerns will often be characterized as intractable, ingrained, almost by definition not subject to change.
  • Third, trying to deal with these fundamental concerns probably will involve displacement of vested interests.
  • Fourth, because they are fundamental concerns, it is often hard to be honest about them, to admit failure about handling them, especially to create an atmosphere of trust where true "leveling" can take place.

Therefore, in order to get to these fundamental concerns, the change agent may have to make elaborate preparations. For example, you may have to build trust through successful encounters on smaller issues, narrower projects, less impactful innovations. You may have to wait for unpredictable upheaval events, seizing them as opportunities, times when the system is so shaken up that a new configuration can be seen as possible, desirable, or even inevitable.  

Even with all this groundwork it will also be necessary to campaign for the change on a large scale. This may require considerable resources, vocal support from key leaders and opinion leaders, and much planning and preparation. For example, it will probably be necessary to organize high visibility events that force system introspection. It will also be necessary to advertise the need for change, to do so repeatedly, and to do so using many channels and through many types of spokespersons.

Redoing the organizational chart

All systems have a structure and all systems can also be charted to show relationships, formal and informal, among people and elements. Some relations are power-hierarchical, some merely associative and communicative. Some are functional lock-ins, such as the need to perform one task before another, e.g., to acquire resources before production and to produce before distribution, etc. Some of that structure may be revealed in the formal organizational chart if there is one. If there isn't one, then insiders ought to be able to draw one from the chart already existing in their heads. Sometimes there will be an organizational chart, which is described as "not real" or "not important." If this is asserted, then it is important to ask what the real one is or in what ways reality diverges from the chart as given. There is sometimes a formal organizational chart and an informal unofficial chart, the latter contained in people's heads. Again, it is important to know how and where the two converge and diverge.

A redo of either the formal or the informal chart represents a systemic change, i.e., a change in the basic structure of the system, and cannot be undertaken lightly. Any such change is likely to imply a redistribution of power, some giving it up, others getting more, some being dealt in for the first time, some at least feeling like they are being dealt out entirely. This is why such changes have to be very well prepared in advance with plenty of participation within and across levels.

If you or your change project or your change team are seeking a place on the chart, as suggested in the previous section, then you, too, represent a systemic change with all the threat and disruption that might imply for some other system stakeholders.

If, on the other hand, you are not somehow represented on the chart, or if you are on the chart but not clearly connected to anybody, you may not really exist for the system. It is an important clue to where you stand. New projects, new teams, and new people doing new things are necessarily marginal to the organization. They exist in parentheses on the chart and they are connected to other entities by dotted lines if at all. System changing requires that those dotted lines get solidified.



The budget is the hardest sub-system to crack. There is always that distinction between "soft" money and "hard" money. "Soft" money is soft in two ways: first because the system leadership did not have to struggle to get it, even though the change agent and the his or her collaborators might have struggled mightily to get it; to the leadership it may seem as if it just fell in their laps without any significant effort on their part and little required commitment to continuation as "hard" money later. There may even be the added bonus of an overhead allowance that goes into their general operating fund. The second way it is "soft" is that it is almost always temporary; it is there to support the temporary system of the project until it has run its course of one, two, or at the most three years. Thus, it can be housed in temporary space, staffed by temporary people. In some cases the funds intended for the temporary system of the change project are even vulnerable to looting by a revenue starved parent system which can assign project staff to other duties, appoint token staff who really do nothing for the project, and otherwise divert funds to subsidize traditional system activities.

Getting a place on the real budget, or changing the way the real budget is allocated, represents real systemic change, and it is one of the greatest challenges to any change agent. This real budget is the one that represents the hard money, what is basic, what must be saved from year to year. What is recognized and given line item status in this budget is what is truly integrated and accepted within the larger system. The real budget is what the leadership and the local taxpayers will continue to support even in the most dire fiscal emergencies. It can be argued that no system really changes significantly if the allocations in this real budget don't change.

There is a certain logic that suggests that real positive change should be more possible in times of stress and financial stringency. The argument goes that the budget crunch forces the system to rethink its priorities (getting to more fundamental concerns) and the way it goes about its business (redoing the organizational chart). Unfortunately, our experience is generally to the contrary. When things get tight, people understandably defend their turf and their livelihood with a bitter tenacity. Those that have been there longest and are most integrated into the system the way it was in the past will therefore fight the hardest to save what they have, and furthermore will be in the strongest position to do so. Shrinking resources tend to set up zero-sum games where any change is perceived, correctly or not, as "you win, I lose." Sometimes this is the reality, but what the change agent should always be looking for are "win-win" or non-zero sum games in which the change benefits all or at least benefits some without threatening others.

Changing the rules

Finally, real system change means changing the way the system works and what it is striving to achieve. Every system has a charter, sometimes written, sometimes implicit, but real nevertheless. The charter states what we are here for, why we are working together, what our values are, and our basic operating philosophy. It is a useful exercise for any organization to reexamine its charter once in a while, to consider how the real charter of today deviates from the written charter of whenever. This organizational self-reexamination is not something to be taken lightly. In itself it is costly and usually requires outside help from change agents specializing in organization development.