How systems change

Sadruzzaman Noor
Sadruzzaman Noor

After five years of working with development organizations to bring about systemic change, I have learned one key lesson about designing and selecting interventions– you just need to keep trying new things. The idea is that while some changes may not work, if the overall number of initiatives to create change increases, the system will improve. This concept is central to understanding social systems. Social systems improve not because everything works perfectly, but because enough entities (firms or people) are testing innovations that over time the system evolves its capacity to cycle through tests and adopt what works and discard what does not. All highly innovative market systems have high rates of testing-adopting-adapting cycles and with time the system gets better and better at cycling innovation by learning from failures. Typically, the rates of failure remain high, but generate enormous learning that leads to and informs the next generation of innovation.

The interesting thing about systems is that they self organize. No single external force can bring change overnight, and similarly improving the efficiency and inclusivity of a market system takes significant time and a range of simultaneous disruptions and trends. The system responds to each intervention/disruption in a way that is unique and hard to predict, creating a non-linear path to change as these reactions misalign or even compete with one another.

Donor-funded interventions often fail to generate sustainable change in the agricultural eco system of developing economies by focusing on a set of narrow interventions that generate quick results towards targets rather than supporting market actors to innovate and test new business tools/strategies. In many cases, these interventions backfire because they fail to delegate the ownership of change to the actors and forces within the systems. Additionally, when not used thoughtfully, donor funds can create a negative disruption in the system.  We have seen many agricultural input organizations to open business wings for “project hunting,” where the team develops proposals aimed at winning donor-funded grants and contracts.  It is crucial to discourage this kind of donor dependence because the system will suffer in the long run as the businesses invest more in short term personal gains rather than focusing on their own long-term strategic business goals.  It is not unusual to see interventions to stop once the cash flow stops.

All these happen if donor projects/organizations do not strive to practice critical systems thinking[1] – keeping the mind open and wallets not-so-open. Systems are complex webs of relationships and interactions among numerous components/actors. Intervening in one interaction creates a ripple effect across the web, and the system self organizes to absorb the external force while the impact of that force fades. Hence, it is imperative that interventions are designed in such a way that they affect all the necessary touch points, so that these actors/components work together towards to path to greater value generation. To achieve this, the sense of ownership over the intervention and resulting change must be transferred from the intervening body to the interacting ones. Let us take the example of the agricultural input firms from the last paragraph to elaborate on this. The firms do not feel the need to change the way they operate because of their lack of trust in the system. They have seen donor funds to be disbursed abundantly, regardless of funding recipient’s business strategy or commitment, and sensed the absence of a balancing mechanism that rewards innovation and change, and punishes stagnation. As a result, they fail to see the potential of growth promised by market inclusiveness, indulge in the zero sum game prohibiting growth, and reinforcing their belief that systems do not work.

As I have seen through the projects I have worked for, it is very important to understand the complexities of relationships between market actors present in the system to learn why it malfunctions. A healthy system corrects itself because it supports innovation in processes, changing the way things work. On the other hand, an unhealthy system shows symptoms like unfair bargaining powers, lack of growth and inefficient distribution and usage of resources. No external force can change the way things work in a sustainable fashion because none of the actors own the change. Hence, donor projects can serve as a positive disruption to boost innovation by providing technical support to businesses to improve their long term business strategies and focus on innovation, and then use funds sparingly to buy down risk as the business tests no ideas or strategies for growth. The key to help the system is to encourage influencers to try new things by motivating them through examples and by sharing the risk. Once they own the concept of “trying” they would see that taking such risks pays off in the long term. Once they see the reward of trying things, they would recognize the change.

So, the next time before you think “Huh… I guess this is the way it goes,” would you pause for a moment to think “Wait! Can I try this?”


Sadruzzaman Noor has been working as a Specialist with the Research & Technology Commercialization team of USAID’s AVC project. He completed his BBA & MBA from the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka. He is an enthusiast on systemic change theories and their practical usage.

[1] “Critical systems thinking aims to combine systems thinking and participatory methods to address the challenges of problems characterized by large scale, complexity, uncertainty, impermanence, and imperfection. It allows nonlinear relationships, feedback loops, hierarchies, emergent properties and so on to be taken into account and Critical Systems Thinking has particularly problematized the issue of boundaries and their consequences for inclusion, exclusion and marginalization” – Bammer (2003)

One thought on “How systems change”

  1. Brilliant piece on market systems development! A must-read for any students and new practitioners in the field … actually, even for experienced ones. Bravo!

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