A leadership gap is limiting the transformation of Africa’s food system
We (Team Wasafiri’s Claudia & Brenda) have just returned from the Africa Food Systems Forum (AGRF) 2023 in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, where we had an incredible week connecting with food system actors on the continent.
It was exciting to see that it is now mainstream to talk about food as a system; that we collectively have moved beyond agriculture production as the only issue that matters.
Taking a system view isn’t just a matter of being more in vogue or with the zeitgeist, but has a real-world practical impact on the way we understand the complexities of food. It is through a systems view that we can understand, for example, the impact of empowering women (who are the majority of the worlds’ farmers) to employ climate are the real word complexities of food systems and just focusing on one dimension – such as increased production, increased incomes, or climate adaptation may make action feel reassuringly achievable but is a mirage in terms of real transformation.
We were also pleasantly surprised to see that soil health is no longer a topic only for geeky soil scientists in a corner, but the subject of several conversations that focus on the “how” rather than the “why”.
Smallholder farmers were acknowledged, mentioned, and celebrated as the backbone of the industry but not yet seen and served as the main clients of that industry. How do we move from smallholders as ‘beneficiaries’ of well-meaning interventions designed to ameliorate the impacts of an industrial food system that is built to serve large scale producers – and into the place where smallerholders hold more of the power within food systems?
Chefs from all over the world united their creative minds and sapient hands to elevate “poor” ingredients like beans to demonstrate that healthy diets do not have to be affordable only for middle-class, urban consumers.
And yet despite this great breadth of knowledge, creativity, inspiration and expertise, we are still dealing with incredibly stubborn problems as the Africa Agriculture Status Report reminds us. Why is that?
A big part of the answer lies in the need for a different kind of leadership. Systemic leadership was lacking at the AGRF. We saw a large showcase of good intentions but very little sense-making and collaboration at a level that can truly advance systemic change. Food System transformation requires a deep appreciation of the interconnections not just between the people that produce, process, transport, sell and consume food but also the relationship to the natural world that is the genesis of it all. No one leader, institution, company, or government, however well-intentioned and well-resourced is going to be able to transform a food system alone. It just can’t be done. Collective action is the only form of action that is going to work – and this needs network-driven forms of leadership where collaboration is not an optional activity but the default mode.
Finally, we have a serious problem with the representational status of African rulers who are often over 60, while the average African is 20 years old. And we still do not have enough women leaders with access to the power they need and deserve to nurture collective change at scale. We need to talk about it and support a new generation of African leaders for Food Systems.
The African Food Fellowship is investing in African Food System leaders in Kenya and Rwanda. We are starting to see how leaders can transform food systems in their countries towards more equitable, sustainable, and healthy outcome. Reach out if you want to know more!
As we look to step up to today’s ecological and social challenges and help our organisations and communities navigate these complex times – we are reaching for leadership approaches that speak to our interconnected and shifting world.
Systems leadership is one such approach. But what does it actually mean? And how do we do it?
Systems leadership has come to refer to two different (though potentially reinforcing) things.
Some advocate for it as a way to do leadership that recognises the nature of organisations but is agnostic to their purpose. Others advocate for systems leadership as a way to achieve positive outcomes from our leadership, driven by a sense of purpose to address social or environmental challenges.
A way to do leadership
The agnostic version of systems leadership is about seeing our organisations as ecosystems – alive with relationships, history, hopes for the future, beliefs, values, culture, personalities, and flows of resources. It is also about recognising that our organisations are subject to events beyond our control.
Systems leadership asks us to see our organisations less like machines and more like gardens, and ourselves as gardeners, not mechanics. In this context, leadership is about building collective efforts, it’s about seeking perspectives and voices from the margins. It is about tending to the enabling conditions and not just today’s presenting problems.
We can do all this stuff and still (mostly) do it in service of the current ‘system’ – that is the outcomes that our organisation, civic society, national politics and so on currently serve.
An outcome of our leadership
The purpose-driven version of systems leadership is about the pursuit of systemic change. Here we refer to the work to change the structures, rules of the game, relationships, beliefs, values, and so on that create the current state.
Let’s take as an example – food systems. At most national scales, and certainly, at a global level, the current dominant food system is wired to produce as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible.
To do this, it is built on a value set that talks of ‘natural resources to be extracted’, it measures land by productive value, prioritises private ownership and seeks efficiency. As such, our food systems have stimulated amazing advances in technology that improve the productive quality of land, increase the size of animals, and speed up the process of harvest.
This is a system that produces large quantities of food (though not equally distributed) and has allowed people in many parts of the world, such as the UK, to move their labour away from farming and towards other jobs.
It is also a system that has degenerated nature and promoted diets that damage our health.
By some estimates, we only pay a third of the true cost of our food – the remaining costs are externalised upon our environment and health care systems.
Food systems leadership is not just about changing how we do leadership inside our ‘food-producing’ organisations but also addresses the nature of the very system that produces food. It is about shifting the mindsets that determine the way we relate to nature, the relationships between producers and consumers of food, the policy and legal frameworks that shape who can own land, the incentives that determine subsidies and ultimately the purpose of food systems.
This sort of systems leadership is going on all over the place and at all scales. It is happening at the level of individual farms that adopt more regenerative practices (such as Ghyll Bank Farm here where I live in Cumbria, Northern England), all the way through to the global level efforts such as the UN Food Systems Summit.
At Wasafiri we have contributed to a number of these systems leadership efforts including the Food Systems Summit, the African Food Fellowship, and the Climate Change COPs which are finally recognising that food systems must account for a third of our net emissions reductions.
A way to lead AND a reason to lead
Leading system change does require we show up as ‘systems leaders’. We must be committed to elevating the voices and power of the marginalised (including the natural world and even future generations), be willing to operate without certainty; knowing that what has gone before won’t hold the answer to what we need to do next; accepting that traditional hierarchical power and control modes of leadership are simply inadequate.
However, just showing up in these ways is not, in itself, a guarantee of system change.
One could use a ‘systems leadership’ approach to run a large agricultural business (or a single farm) – and do so in the pursuit of the same outcomes as it has always produced.
Leadership for system change needs us to both operate differently as leaders and pursue different sorts of outcomes from our leadership – the sorts of outcomes that will create a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world.
Responsible leadership requires meaningful engagement with system level change
By Kate Simpson, Wasafiri & Mark Larmour, Forward Institute
When Fellows from the Forward Institute met recently in York, they came together to explore how best to understand and experiment with systemic change in complex organisations.
The Forward Institute teamed up with Wasafiri, and their Systemcraft model, to help their Fellows work out ‘so, what do I do next?’.
Leading change in complex organisations to create responsible, sustainable, or even regenerative outcomes requires leaders who are willing and skilled up to take a systems-based approach to making change happen. And here is why.
Responsible and sustainable leadership in any organisation demands that we consider the impact our organisations have on people, communities, society and the environment. All the impacts. All the people. Not just the impact that we might desire. And not just the people – employees, shareholders, customers – that we set out to serve. It requires us to consider all the impacts and all the people.
Often, this requires responsible and sustainable organisations to absorb the additional burden of the impacts that lie well beyond their perceived organisational boundary. This, for instance, might mean taking responsibility for the impact on the environment through the waste produced, transportation used, or the natural resources required in their processes.
It could mean taking responsibility for the (sometimes hidden) impact on the communities that they serve or are located within. It should also include taking responsibility for the impact of what the organisation does, and how it does it, on the well-being and health of its people.
Taking responsibility as leaders for these wider impacts, across the complex systems in which we operate, requires more than just good intentions.
Often our business models work more efficiently, and more profitably, by externalising certain environmental or social costs.
Sustainable, responsible shifts within organisations are not about doing current things better, but about doing current things differently. And that ‘different’ is systemic change.
This is not a shallow, woolly or abstract call for things to just ‘be different’. It requires specific attention to the incentives that drive current choices within our organisation.
It is the need for better collaboration between organisations, across all sectors, and with wider society – we can only make a responsible and sustainable change when we work collectively.
While there often aren’t quick fixes or easy wins, there are still many things that we can change for the better, and for the long term.
The Forward Institute is focused on encouraging organisations to consider the wider impacts that they are having on society, and encouraging senior leaders to think for the long term. Wasafiri has created the Systemcraft model through reverse engineering their extensive experience of working with organisations and communities on leading complex, systemic change.
Working together as thought partners, we are collectively committed to helping senior leaders and their organisations to make good change happen.
It is only when we look outside our organisational boundaries that we are able to identify the opportunities to make positive change in the complex systems in which we operate which can benefit everyone.
It’s been 25 years since the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed and brought an almost end to the violence in Northern Ireland. What have we learnt from The Peace Process? How ready and willing are we to let go of being right and accept the truth of vastly different perspectives?
The UK cost-of-living crisis is a complex problem.
It has multiple root causes (inflation, the war in Ukraine, fuel prices, long-term economic trends and more).
It is dynamic so it is changing and shifting as we work on it.
No single institution can solve it alone (however powerful well intentioned or well-resourced they are). It is a problem that will only give in to collective action.
And finally, some of the reasons it is so hard to shift is that there are trade-offs. Putting up wages puts pressure on inflation (and raises costs). Higher taxes have both political and economic implications, likewise with greater subsidies for things like energy costs.
For these reasons, there are no simple answers to the cost-of living crisis; no silver bullet solutions to reach for.
So, what do we do next?
In moments like this, when faced with problems with a high degree of complexity and uncertainty about ‘who should do what’, we need to stop calling for other people to ‘do something’ and start building better collective responses.
Complex problems by their nature need collective actions. We need actions that vary by context – that are adapted for different social groups, regions and the different ways that the cost-of-living crisis is driven and experienced.
Wasafiri has been supporting a range of organisations and clients with their work to build more collective responses to the Cost-of-Living Crisis:
Brighton & Hove City Council convened a summit (facilitated by Wasafiri) that brought key partners together to align and coordinate support, share information and identify ideas and actions to strengthen a collective response. The large turnout demonstrated the high levels of motivation to work more collectively across the city.
Across this work we are noticing a few trends:
The cost-of-living crisis cannot be solved at the individual level – food banks, personal finance advice, low-interest loans for travel passes, and even home insulation are all things that will help people to live in the current context but won’t change the context. They are useful and important, but they are a response to the presenting problem – not an attempt to shift its causes.
Local collective action – the specific drivers and experiences of the cost-of-living crisis vary by geographic region but also industry, demographics, and a whole host of other variables. Consequently, responses need to be equally varied.
For example, in Cumbria, a rural area in the north of England, there is a lot of available employment but the cost of transport is a significant barrier to people accessing it. The current (government-funded) experiment to cap bus prices at a flat £2 has more than halved the cost of bus transport in the region and opened up employment opportunities.
For an even more innovative (and artistic) attempt to take a collective response check out Power, a project to get a street in London to become its own green power station. The Power project is a recognition that the incentives for individuals to invest in things like solar panels just don’t stack up. On top of this there are significant barriers for individuals including finding suppliers, dealing with planning permissions, having the upfront cash to invest. By taking a collective approach the logistics and the financial incentives are shifted and a sense of belonging and community is created.
Let’s look to the long term
The cost-of-living crisis is a symptom of an underlying system driven (in part) by a dependency on carbon-based energy. We know that we need to change this.
As the cost-of-living crisis stimulates us to change the way we do things – like how we build our homes, use transport, the food we eat, the energy we consume, the products we reuse (or never use) – let’s make these changes not just to get us through this storm but to help us adapt and move towards a more sustainable and even regenerative future.
Lisa has over 20 years of experience catalysing leadership action and innovation in pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She has held senior leadership roles at the Environmental Defence Fund, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, The World Economic Forum and most recently at Harvard University.
Through these roles she has been at the frontlines of some of the world’s most complex sustainability issues particularly around food, ending hunger, innovation and public-private partnerships.
As well as being a System leader she is also a renowned thinker, writer and educator on the topic and has recently founded ‘Systems Leadership Lab’ to help leaders drive systemic change on complex challenges.
Join our live session and have a chance to bring your own questions for Lisa.
Systems thinking shows us that ‘the system is working’. Silos in organisations are a case in point. The challenge with silos then is not to break them. Rather, we must ask how we better connect them.
Recently, whilst recruiting for a senior leader, I read a CV of a man who declared his leadership superpower was ‘breaking down silos’. But what if the silos are helping? What if we like silos? What if the silos don’t need breaking but nurturing?
In the world of organisations, it can seem that there is no crime more egregious than creating, working in, and let alone liking silos. And yet, in pretty much every organisation too big to fit around a kitchen table, there are sub-teams or silos. You too are probably part of one.
One of the universal truths of systems thinking is ‘if it exists it is working’. We keep on inventing silos in our organisations despite their lack of popularity. The question then is ‘for whom and in what way are silos working’?
Silos let us know who we belong to – who our people are – who does work like us – who understands the challenges we wrestle with – who knows the things that can help us. And silos create tight accountability.
Structurally, they allow organisations to chunk down accountability beyond the overall organisation performance. Silos mean we can see if the engineering department is developing products with suitable quality, we can see if the sales department is getting out into the market and generating interest, and we can measure if the customer service department is responding well to customers.
And in big organisations – be they public or private – silos help us to see and organise the parts or the organisation and not just the ‘whole’.
System thinking teaches us that resistance to change always sits in what is working and not in what isn’t working. And so, it is all this ‘useful stuff’ that makes silos so resilient to the best efforts of the most evangelical of mangers.
We have seen this in our work with the National Health Service in the UK. Again and again, we see how the silo between ‘hospital’ (clinical) care and social care (at-home nursing) can increase costs and impact negatively on patient health.
This is an organisation full of committed patient-centric people but the structures that define how funding flows and work is organised repeatedly lead to people being stuck in hospital for longer than they want and need, costing more money than they should and often getting less healthy.
In some organisations, the negative impact of silos goes beyond unintentional outcomes and silos become the borders around which an organisation wages civil warfare on itself. Silo leaders seek to capture resources, battle for talent, stake out their territory, and advocate for ‘their’ people. All this effort distracts from whatever the organisation exists to do and pulls at the very seams that hold it together.
So, if silos are both a good and useful thing as well as a bad and unhelpful thing, what do we do next? And how can systems thinking help us?
System thinking reminds us that our work is not to work primarily on the elements (bits) that make up a system, rather it is to work on the connections between them. So, in this case, we need to look not at how we break down or replace silos (matrix management anyone?) but at how we connect them better to each other. This is the power of networks.
Imagine you are part of a sports team. Perhaps you love to play football (or hockey, canoe polo, or kabaddi). That team you are part of is a silo – it connects a set of people in a discreet bounded way. But if you are part of, say, a football team, to really do the thing you exist to do, you need to play (work) with other teams. So, you join a league.
Now you need to connect with other teams, you need to share a calendar, you need to share resources, and have agreements about who plays who when and where, you need shared rules and norms and ways of collecting data.
You become part of a great team and a great league not because you win all the time but when the games you play are closely matched, when each team elevates the performance of the other, when the play itself is a joy to watch and be a part of. When this happens the league as a whole produces something that no team can produce on its own – great games of football/hockey/canoe polo/kabbadi.
In the organisational context, we don’t want competitions between our teams (silos) in the same way that sports teams do – but we do want them to connect closely, to bring out the very best in one another, to create between them something that no individual silo can do on its own.
We need our specialist teams to maintain their own sense of belonging, to know what they are accountable for, to invest in their distinct area of focus but to know that their ultimate success depends on their ability to connect with other silos. Creating this connected network is the work of the system leader.
So next time you find yourself bemoaning the silos within your organisation – ask yourself not what you can do to break them but rather what you can do to better connect them.
To learn more about how you can use an applied systems-based approach in your work, join the Systemcraft community and take the Systemcraft Essentials course.
LIVE – our new Systemcraft Essentials online course
Systems thinking and complexity seem to be everywhere – but are you left wondering “so what do I actually do next?” If so, then check our new online on-demand Systemcraft Essentials Course.
Systemcraft is a practical framework for creating change in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It has been reverse-engineered from Wasafiri’s experience working on some of the world’s toughest problems. It has been used by leaders in organisations such as the National Health Service, the British Army, Legal & General, FCDO, Mars, Save the Children and many others.
Systemcraft Essentials brings together all the core ideas and key tools that leaders need to start applying Systemcraft to their own context.
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"Wasafiri helped us identify new and practical ways we could make progress on some really difficult, longstanding issues. Systemcraft was key in helping us think in new ways about very familiar things."
Stephen Clayman, Commander, Metropolitan Police Service
Organisations do die; palliative care could reduce the destructive and increase the creative impact of their passing
I was recently working on a Forward Institute event with the rather brilliant Scott Morrison of The Boom!1 He asked the audience “what are the most heretical questions you could ask about your organisation?, This question has sent me off on all sorts of mental meanders and what-ifs. The latest being: Should our organisations really strive to live forever? Could it be a good thing for organisations to die off at some point?”
Much of management and organisational development is centred on the assumption that longevity is a good thing. That being able to reinvent, restructure and pivot are the practices we need. That endless regeneration and never-ending existence are the ultimate goals. That survival is the ultimate performance measure2. But is it? Everything in nature ages and ultimately dies with new growth flourishing in the space created. In reality, organisations will have their time in the sun and then pass on (with increasingly few passing the 60-year mark) and some suggesting as little as 18 years is a reasonable life expectancy3 yet the myth of immortality is a strong one. A myth that often seems to lead to painful deaths, heralded by increasingly bellicose claims of reinvention, promises of new dawns and possibilities and ending with dramatic and painful collapses.
Others have argued in favour of the value of corporate death. Joseph Schumpter is perhaps the most famous with his idea of ‘creative destruction’ and the argument that large companies are inherently inefficient, and ultimately suffer from ‘entropy’ where they spend more time managing themselves than doing whatever it is they are supposed to do in the world. But there is a long distance between what is good in principle and what is good in practice. Schumpter’s principle of ‘creative destruction’ often in practice means the destruction of people’s lives and livelihoods, and, especially when an organisation has a strong geographical footprint, their communities. But what if responsible leadership included knowing when your organisation’s time was up? What if with good palliative care organisational demise need not be ‘destructive’? Maybe palliative care could create a graceful decline and provide individuals and communities with the opportunity to move on in timely, happy, and healthy ways?
What might organisational palliative care look like?
Step one: Timely diagnosis
By acknowledging that the organisation has reached its twilight years we can all prepare for a transition. Customers have time to find alternative options with less risk of price gouging by unscrupulous competitors. Suppliers have time to diversify and employees can think about what new skills they might need and take the time to find new opportunities. Local markets won’t be flooded with a sudden unemployed workforce all competing with one another.
Step two: Managed decline
Our organisational models are built for growth – we know how to add and do more – but how about doing less? Perhaps staff move from full to part time employment or the entire organisation shifts to a 4-day workweek. There will undoubtably be plenty of puzzles to manage as we simply haven’t built organisations that are alive but slowing down; we will need markets not scared of big players that are doing a good job but reducing rather than expanding their activities. Customers need to value the old-age organisational citizens in their world and not just the young and new. There needs to be confidence in the provision of ongoing support for products whose life cycle may be longer than that of their producer.
Step three: Make good choices about divesting assets
Are there buildings, machines, or existing inventory to be sold off? The current mode of sudden collapse makes these sorts of assets easy prey for post-bankruptcy acquisition often allowing asset stripping by predatory interests. But what if these assets could be moved on with care and consideration – perhaps with the money raised forming an inheritance for the employees or communities that will be affected by their passing?
Step four: Celebrate the passing
I remember the passing of the British high-street staple Woolworths4; a final splutter of press attention and then a quick burn out… and with it a load of pain for the 30,000 people that worked there. I also remember the aftermath; the flurry of joy at shared memories of ‘the Woolworths bargain bin’- a place many of my generation bought their first music albums (Tears for Fears for me). At the time I hadn’t been in a Woolworths store for many years, but its passing brought back a nostalgic memory of happy time and ritual. Maybe palliative care would include a celebration of past success rather than glorifying in the moments of collapse?
The reality is most private sector organisations do, eventually, age and decline. And perhaps this is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we just haven’t yet learned how to responsibly help them age with grace and pass with as little pain as possible for the people that depend on them. All living systems include death as well as birth; as we face the climate crisis and the need to reimagine our economies, our modes of energy production and much else besides perhaps ‘organisational palliative care’ can help us create the new world we need?
Wasafiri currently works with the Forward Institute, a not for profit that works with many of the UK’s leading public, private and charitable organisations to make ‘responsible leadership the only form of leadership’. Through the use of Systemcraft we help leaders tackle the complex problems they and their organisations are wrestling with as they play their part in creating a more sustainable and equitable world.
Written with thanks to Adrian Brown, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact for the, as always, help to think about things a little differently.