Systems doing – lessons from Social Innovators on doing differently to achieve change

Nikki Feltham
Nikki Feltham

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Wasafiri cocreated the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s Transforming through Trust report, which we are excited to announce was shared at Davos this week as the Foundation celebrates the values and achievements of three cohorts of awardees from 2019 to 2022.

What stood out for us was not just the impact that these change leaders have achieved, despite being amid a pandemic, but their ongoing commitment to supporting their organisations and others to work collectively, or differently, to tackle systemic issues.

I spoke with Dr François Bonnici, Director of the Schwab Foundation about his learnings from this period and, drawing also on insights from research writing his book The Systems Work of Social Change, his advice for organisations looking to lean into wider social change.

Reflecting on our conversation, and thinking about what we see in our work at Wasafiri, I’d suggest that organisations looking to contribute to achieving real change should consider the following:

Generate the change in the here and now

Social Innovation is generating new forms of what’s possible. In doing so, contributes to wider change through directly engaging with and unlocking one piece of the system it seeks to change.

Recognising social innovation as a form of activism means we can counter our frustration with the extent to which actors on the front lines are needed to fill gaps left by social inequality.

While social innovators are often delivering a service or specific intervention, this generation of alternatives coupled with a shifting of power dynamics and an increase in the agency of marginalised groups shifts the system at a deeper level.

Catalysing is more important than leading

Thinking like a movement while deploying the strengths of an organisation opens up the aims and methods by which organisations can contribute to wider change.

This can be especially helpful when trying to find the mode of working together and the value and contribution from different partners.

Through the work that we have done with the Schwab Foundation, we can see how relatively small organisations can be catalytic for larger organisations.

Perhaps thinking about smaller actors as distinct elements of a movement, and therefore more loosely aligned might more easily create a commonality of approach. It is certainly a way of grounding the well-known idea of thinking bigger than your own or clients’ success.

Pay attention to your current role

Organisations who want to bring about change must first consider how they benefit from the current system in order to engage wholeheartedly with the issues and collaborate successfully.

It is early in the journey to taking a systemic change approach. The institutional challenges of evolving from the twin lure of scale and a technical “silver bullet” fix remain.

However, the positive traction in ideas over the last three years, piqued by the pandemic, has invited more questioning by organisations about how they should contribute and what their best role is.

Building on this evolution in thought is one of the key contributions of organisations such as the Schwab Foundation and Wasafiri who benefit from working with diverse organisations and thinking practitioners.

The big change won’t come from any single partnership

Embrace the mindset that this is a learning and building period and is an essential phase to enable greater systems change. This will allow for the risks necessary to get traction now.

Being prepared for a partnership to fail is hugely important for all parties when looking outside organisation boundaries to form unusual collaborations for systemic change.

Taking the view that the specific partnership is not the win can be very freeing when saying yes to different partners and lessening the need for a ‘senior’ partner (often a larger organisation) to take control.

Beyond the specific partnership, two big gains can be found; the lessons learned about working for change with different organisations and an increase in the agency of local organisations, building their position and voice across a range of actors and interventions. Both will shift the system in which the organisations exist, beyond the current engagement.

Further information

If your organisation wants to maximise its contribution to people and planet and is thinking of collaborating and forming unusual partnerships, please get in touch!

Read this report for more on the impact of the Schwab Foundation’s 2019-22 awardees.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Systemcraft in action with youth at risk of radicalisation at the coast of Kenya

The Systemcraft Institute is hosted by Wasafiri and is a community and education platform that helps leaders and practitioners bring an applied systems-based approach to change. Through the Institute we offer courses, workshops, tools and share stories of system change work.

In the first in a series of our Systemcraft stories that we hope to share with you on this blog, Kate Simpson – Director of the Systemcraft Institute and former Wasafiri Managing Director – talks with Aisha Aden about her work with young people in the coastal region of Kenya who are at risk of radicalisation. She explains how she has used Systemcraft in her work.

Look out for more videos in this series but in the meantime, read a brief introduction to Systemcraft and take a look at the Five dimensions for change.

Photo by Zeynep Gökalp on Unsplash

Read more Systemcraft blogs

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Here’s how systems-thinking led to a breakthrough in tackling poverty in West Pokot

A renowned Kenyan Economist posited that the main challenge facing the country today is the tension between ‘politics of the economy’ and the ‘politics of development’. He goes further to explain how this is shaping the political discourse both at the national and (devolved) county levels. And the Kenyan public is fully engaged in this discourse.

Whereas Kenya’s Vision 2030 sets out a national goal for the elimination of extreme poverty, it has been criticized for being too capital-intensive and therefore struggling to adequately address extreme poverty in many parts of the country. Some county governments have embarked on a deliberate action to address this by turning the aspirations of devolution into practical efforts having effects in people’s lives.

Through an Open Society Foundation funded ‘Economic Justice Programme’ project, Wasafiri and Village Enterprise, in collaboration with the County Government of West Pokot, have successfully integrated poverty graduation into the county’s social protection programming. This was achieved in two ways:

  1. The birth of the first-ever county government Policy on Poverty Graduation in 2020.
  2. The development of a sessional paper – a legal regulatory framework that legalizes the operationalization of the poverty graduation policy- this was approved by the entire members of the West Pokot County Assembly in 2021.

Subsequently, two other policies were formulated by the County Government of West Pokot; the climate change policy and climate financing policy.

Change is Collective

The approval of the Poverty Graduation Policy was the culmination of a county-owned and led multi-stakeholder process closely linked to and leaning on the West Pokot County Integrated Development Plan’s (CIDP) mission “To Transform Livelihoods through Equitable and Sustainable Utilization of Resources”.

The focus of the CIDP is on food and nutrition security and improving equity in socio-economic opportunities, and this partly speaks to the reasons why poverty graduation has resonated so strongly in West Pokot – the first county in Kenya to develop a county-wide approach to ending extreme poverty.

This policy seeks to eliminate poverty by 2025, an ambitious goal and timeframe. In 2021, the West Pokot County Government has requested assistance from Wasafiri and Village Enterprise with the start of implementing the policy.

An evaluation done by Wasafiri and Village Enterprise during the project’s inception phase showed that government officers had a limited understanding of poverty graduation and its effectiveness in eradicating extreme poverty. Apart from low capacity, there were no guidelines on policymaking, and inadequate or no funding for poverty graduation programmes.

Four ‘areas of focus’ were articulated as a priority to address this:

  1. Effective targeting due to limited resources
  2. Layering of existing poverty eradicating interventions for extremely poor households because existing programmes are resourced, operating at scale and are the best place to start
  3. Galvanising resources and adapting existing programmes
  4. Effective monitoring

Implementation Approach

The design and implementation of this one-year ‘exit’ project draws from substantive engagement and learning from the activities and lessons during the project’s inception phase. It is hinged on three (3) key pillars:

  1. Strengthening capability and commitment to implement the policy focused on the four ‘areas of focus’ mentioned above through systems leadership coaching, and technical assistance
  2. Advocacy through lobbying for budget allocation, targeting of the extreme poor and influencing the 2023 – 2028 County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP)
  3. Capture knowledge of what works for learning and further capacity building

An innovative systems leadership coaching that ‘made it matter’

Wasafiri has deployed its expertise as a systems change agency to design and deliver individual and group systems leadership development coaching sessions to the policy Technical Working Group (TWG) drawn from the political, administrative, and selected community actors in West Pokot.

The format was in-person, four sessions over a four-month period and delivered as individual and group coaching.

From the Country Government, the individual coaching targeted senior policy technocrats from key departments, i.e., agriculture, budget, education, planning, trade, and social protection. The group coaching sessions targeted a broader stakeholder group comprising four County Executive Committee members (Ministers) and selected community actors and women groups who will play different critical roles that will lead to the operationalization and prioritization of the policy.

The foundation for the coaching was Wasafiri’s Systemcraft model – a framework for how we believe anyone can drive systemic change. It focuses on collective, adaptive, and experimental action on the system.

The purpose of the coaching is to strengthen the collective and adaptive capacity of the Technical Working Group (TWG) to implement the policy and achieve three outcomes:

  1. Secure budget allocation for the Poverty Graduation Policy (PGP) for financial year 2022 / 2023.
  2. Evolve and adapt existing programmes to support poverty graduation policy implementation.
  3. Integrate and scale scaling up poverty graduation within Country Integrated.

At the wrap up of the systems leadership coaching, we have evidence of success:

  1. Treasury has allocated KES 4.5M to operationalise the committees of the policy at county, sub-county, and ward levels and for identification of the policy’s target population, i.e., the extremely poor.
  2. The Treasury Department at the Country has taken full responsibility for taking the policy forward and strategically placed itself at the fulcrum of poverty graduation policy implementation across the whole of government. This is major progress and enhances the durability of implementation due to the influence that Treasury has in the budget process, and they have committed to ringfence allocation towards the policy.
  3. There was a strong endorsement of the coaching by the Head of Planning and the four County Chief Executives (CECs) who expressed the desire for Wasafiri and Village Enterprise to return and provide more systems leadership training to the County Government post the August 2022 elections.

Raising awareness, sharing lessons, and generating new support

The close of the systems leadership coaching ushers in an important phase of advocacy and learning whose goal is to secure the long-term sustainability of the poverty graduation efforts. Whilst this work is still ongoing significant achievements have been made so far.

  1. County Government of West Pokot is now using the policy to identify programmes under the current county development blueprints to either adopt or evolve them to support poverty graduation policy implementation. These are programmes that address the most acute aspects of poverty in West Pokot, I.e., marginalization, equality, and equity.
  2. Capacitating the County M&E department to develop a standard targeting tool to identify the extreme poor. This tool will be used by the county government to identify beneficiaries of graduation programmes at the county, in this case the extremely vulnerable.
  3. Village Enterprise continues to strengthen the agency of the local citizenry through education and awareness delivered through a series of interactive community radio shows.
  4. Village Enterprise with support from Wasafiri will also benefit from three (3) learning forums, one with the North Rift Economic Bloc (NOREB), a forum that brings together member counties from the North Rift regions to work together as a team on matters economy followed by a learning visit at the Council of Governors (CoG) to share best practices among devolved Governments and lastly participation in a national graduation stakeholder forum in April this year convened by BOMA and bringing together the County Governments of West Pokot and Marsabit.

What next?

Sustainability of the project is grounded on the effective stakeholder engagement processes and strategic direction and deliberations that promote ownership and cooperation among implementing partners, i.e., Wasafiri, Village Enterprise and County Government of West Pokot.

Looking beyond the August 2022 elections in Kenya, we see additional pathways to continue scaling the project mobilising for more resources from development partners to support in the identification of the extreme poor including set-up and roll-out of a robust management information system (MIS), a scaled-up citizen engagement through interactive community radio shows and additional systems leadership coaching and technical assistance in response to expected transition.

Read more about our work in West-Pokot

Photo by Rathnahar Sriom from Pexels

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It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it – diverse partners coming together for impact

At Wasafiri, it has been hugely exciting to support the World Economic Forum’s Georgie Passalaris and the Impact, Measurement and Management team in evaluating the progress of their new response to tackling some of the world’s most complex problems. The new grant-funded multistakeholder platforms are collaborations of diverse, cross-sector stakeholders with a shared ambition to deliver specific mission-driven outcomes.

Complex problems these platforms are tackling include mobilising climate action to reduce carbon emissions and striving for net-zero outcomes, strengthening nature-based solutions, improving water and ocean systems, and giving a focus to catalysing systems change. 

Using 13 of their multistakeholder platforms (including Global Plastic Action Partnership, Scale360 ̊, Sustainable Development Investment Partnership, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship among others), the joint team looked at the progress made and the key characteristics of the partnerships that enabled this.

For us at Wasafiri as we continue to develop our systems thinking approach Systemcraft, the following three insights have the loudest resonance:

  1. Topics have acted as door openers to more difficult conversations – By collaborating on a challenge that stakeholders can align on, such platforms can act as entry points into more complex and interconnected challenges, expanding scopes and evolving the collaboration further.
  2. Open and trusted dialogue is essential – Crucially, the production process can be as important as the products – joint development by public and private sector and civil society actors whose collective action is required to bring about change, builds trust for further action.
  3. The value of partnerships lies in their dynamic nature – They can adapt and respond to changing contexts and environments. Partnerships are helping to adapt to these changing conditions by launching innovations, fostering new partnerships, and mobilizing new sources of funding and financing. Ensuring that such partnerships have room to grow and evolve is fundamental to their success.

Making change happen needs unlikely bedfellows to work together. These platforms are leveraging the Forum’s global network to increase collaboration between diverse stakeholders. The insights tell us that it is not just the impact they have in the here and now, but the increase in real connections made that will make the difference.

Wasafiri supported the World Economic Forum in the production of this report detailing the contribution to SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement, and lessons learned. It was published as part of Day 1 of the Davos Agenda 2022.

Photo by Min An from Pexels

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The power of an invitation: learning about how change happens from those on the front lines…

Have you ever had one of those ‘lightbulb moments’, where you get an idea so inspirational that it creates perfect clarity for just an instant, and then afterwards you slap yourself in bewilderment at why it took you so long to realise it? Happily, (and embarrassingly), we had one of those epiphanies, if you will, in September.

Since our founding, Wasafiri has been grappling with the question of ‘how does change happen?” when tackling complex problems. Our practical guide to action (Systemcraft) was a product of this life-long journey of exploration.

Our most recent ‘aha’ moment was to ask, ‘why don’t we bring together some of our most diverse, dedicated and dynamic clients to learn from each other?’ Seems obvious, right? Well, that’s exactly what we did – and the joy, connection, and energy from our gathering have given birth to a new precedent for how we learn moving forward.

The virtual learning session brought together Wasafiri staff from four continents, and wonderful clients from four of our most recent projects.

We dove into the lessons from messy, real-world work together. We shared stories from the failings, successes and imperfections of our shared endeavours and together, identified some common themes and insights.

Participating Projects

Africa Food Fellowship (across Africa) is a world-class leadership programme for food systems leaders, catalysing a professional movement for systemic change across Africa. Wasafiri co-designed the Fellowship in partnership with Wageningen University for Research & Innovation.

Project reps: Eunice Khaguli, Dave Okech and Winnie Yegon

CREATE (East Africa) Wasafiri works with Mercy Corps to lead the Knowledge and Learning Unit of this three-year, five-country regional program to counter violent extremism across East Africa.

Project reps: Catherine Mwendwa and Maia Blume

Feltham Convening Partnership (Greater London, UK) is a 7-year project that aims to use systems-based approaches to deliver substantial, sustainable improvements to the lives of local children, young people, and families in the Feltham community.

Project reps: Scott Hinkle, Mei Lim, Victoria Hirst and Teo Balint

United Nations Food Systems Summit (Global) To ensure the voices of SMEs were heard at the Global Food Systems Summit, Wasafiri was commissioned to help activate the global community of agri-food SMEs, profile those SMEs improving nutrition and sustainable consumption, and identify pathways for greater support.

Project reps: Ian Randall and Viliana Dzhartova

Key themes that emerged from using Systemcraft

It is difficult to harness, facilitate and measure the Emergence of a systemic effort.

Collective efforts and participation tend to unleash a domino effect of more participation and collective initiatives. This is often where the power and scale of system change occur.

For those leading systems change efforts, the challenge seems to be in how to facilitate the emergence toward a meaningful, constructive and measurable way.

There was also a question of how and when to merge collective efforts (new power) with more traditional and hierarchal leadership systems (old power), and what space is needed to be able to do that.

Genius insight from the session: “How do we host emergence?”

A mindset shift in the way people think about the issue is critical but requires a process of Unlearning.

One of the key aspects of effective systemic approaches is facilitating a process that effectively helps people shift away from what they are used to, and from their default reactions to problems and issues. Our practice should be to help clients and partners ‘unlearn’ practices that potentially perpetuate the problem. We need to hold this process of learning and embody the spirit of collective action.

Quotes from the session: “There is a big leap to bring other people along, whose institutions and mindsets are not set up in that way.”

Tensions exist between the time it takes to learn and implement collective approaches vs the desire to ‘see things getting done’.

Simply put, it takes more time to apply systems approaches; dealing with contextual and relationship sensitivities, power imbalances, and a much broader group of stakeholders.

The above systems learning/unlearning process combined with the time and resources necessary for collective action can be frustrating, but it is important that our teams, partners, and clients learn it, and then apply it themselves in their own organisations.

It can help to openly discuss the balance between collective engagement and required project deadlines and outcomes.

Good news, there is no right or wrong way to use Systemcraft.

It is important, but challenging, to know what parts of systems-based approaches to share, and how. Balancing the explicit and implicit use of them with the clients and partners can be challenging.

Some projects were using it and teaching it to partners explicitly, while others don’t mention it at all, but use pieces of it to guide their work.

This demonstrates that the Systemcraft framework is flexible and can be used in tailored ways to benefit diverse projects.

Quote from the session: “We are not saying to people that we are doing Systemcraft, but we are doing it in our work.”

As I sit here writing this and reflecting on the experience, I am stuck with one lasting impression, a quote I wrote down in my notes, ‘There is simplicity and power in an invitation to participate.’

I am certainly glad that some of my colleagues (George and Bhabz in particular) unearthed that revelation, as well as the moxie to follow it through. It raised the bar for all of us.

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Talk is commonplace of how systems approaches can solve complex problems. But how might it help leaders make real world decisions? How might it help leaders like you?