How do you change the system three steps at a time?

4 min readFeb 24, 2022

We often oppose different ways of making change happen. When it comes to comparing service design and systems change, there’s no exception.

Service design is seen as helping people to work in a more agile way so that you can continuously move forward with tackling an issue. You can adapt what you’ve learnt and try something else. You can do it in a more visceral and pro-active way, such that people can see, touch and feel what you’re doing. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be structured and the stories by the Design Council on how the “double diamond” was created show that you need a mixture of spontaneous creativity and structure — freedom within a framework if you wall. In fact, as @jeneralife recalls, “The Double Diamond opened up the design process to others, it democratised it, it made it manageable”

Systems change, on the other hand, is perceived to have different qualities. You can take the time to understand the complexity of the system. You can focus on assembling coalitions of people around a common cause. You can tap into invisible signals to help understand what’s under the skin of an issue and where to intervene.

This opposition between service design and systems change is often reinforced by people who try and codify their discipline. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it helps people better understand how to apply the methods. This opposition is also created by people who commission either service design or systems change (people like me!), as they assume that certain projects need a more experimental approach whereas others require more systemic thinking. But change doesn’t occur in a vacuum, nor should we only work at one level of change.

Indeed, the best examples of change show that it needs different actors doing different things at different scales, which then create tipping points for systems change. Some of these interventions have been planned and others are accidental. Some of those interventions were probably not initially joined up but created a story of change happening in different environments, that produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

1. Blend the experimental and the systemic

From Design Thinking to Systems Change, RSA

Work we’ve done shows you can work at different levels of change using an open, experimental & systemic approach. You can blend one to one interviews with people in the community and have expert round tables. You can blend sprints with deep analysis of ideas. You can blend testing ideas that are relatively mature elsewhere (i.e. digital platforms/networks), those which accelerating (i.e. supporting inclusive businesses) and those which are new and relatively unexplored (i.e. hybrid versions of basic income). You can also blend a targeted approach of focusing on particular cohorts of people who are furthest from the labour market and people who are in work poverty as you try to understand that cohort better.

RSA wrote an excellent report authored by Rowan Conway on this which shows that programmes can assume that systems change or design linearly takes place, whereas actually, it doesn’t confront the wider factors that hinder change from happening, whether it’s rules & processes, ingrained norms & prejudices, the readiness of people or infrastructure and so on. They go on to argue that to scale innovations you shouldn’t just focus on the solution to the need, but innovating hacks to each of these barriers:

Acting entrepreneurially isn’t just about spotting the best opportunities for change. It is also about maximising the possibility for an innovation to navigate through barriers to change and make an impact at scale. This requires a hacker mentality. Hacking the system means finding the counterpoints to the barriers to change and creating ways to circumvent them.

From Design Thinking to Systems Change, RSA

2. Don’t need to do everything at the same time

You don’t need to develop hypotheses or test ideas in the same way. You can prototype a digital experiment for one hypothesis while continuing to deepen engagement with businesses for another and challenging the direction of travel for a third.

You also need to be able to respond to where residents are. Without confusing their wants and needs, if they don’t understand or can’t relate to the idea you’re testing, even if they agree with the problem, you need to change tack. You could split the hypothesis in two and test a more radical versus a more well-known approach.

Adam Groves has developed a Systems Leverage Map which starts from Donella Meadow’s Intervention Points to help people map out the different ways they are trying to effect change to an issue. As he says:

By mapping the components of individual services (or portfolios of services) against these two axes, perhaps we can explore their relationship to systems change. To what extent are we tweaking around the edges of the existing system, versus changing the behaviour of the system itself — and how ambitious is the effort?

Systems Leverage Map, Adam Groves




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese