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

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, that 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 which 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 Conwayon this which shows that programmes can make the assumption that systems change or design takes place in a linear way, whereas actually it doesn’t confront the wider factors that hinder change from happening, whether it’s rules & processes, ingrained norms & prejudices, readiness of people or infrastructure and so on. They go on to argue that in order 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 hypotheses, 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

3. Develop communities of practice around the ideas you’re developing

Even if you’re testing ideas in different ways, keep developing the community of people around them. Help them to spot the connections, the spillover effects or the unintended consequences of testing one idea on another.

Help them be inspired by the different methods you’re using to open their imagination into how they could apply them in their context and to help them learn where in the change journey these methods are most effective.

The Policy Lab has developed a useful set of categories of the different communities you can create around issues:

Design in Policy, Policy Lab

4. Continue researching even while you’re prototyping

When you’re developing prototypes based on the insights of the initial hypothesis, make sure to create sub-hypotheses to make the prototype even more focused.

Think about how you’re going to assess the prototype, particularly if you’re testing more than one, this could be desirability, viability, feasibility. Don’t think that because you’re now prototyping that you shouldn’t do more research. Prototyping isn’t just about making stuff you can see and touch, it’s about testing different ways to achieve an outcome, and that can be through.

Share with people why you’re prototyping and be open about the hypothesis so that people know why you’re resting the idea. Be open about how you’ve had to pivot, so people can see why you’ve changed, what lessons you’ve learned, and so they can see that they can challenge the idea because you have yourself.

Version of double diamond by @policylabuk

Sanjan Sabherwal adjusted the Double Diamond to focus on what happens “in between” the diamond, the space for speculation and provocation.

Be open about how people are responding to the idea or prototype, so that you’re creating a conversation, not just between you and a user of the service, but between people so they can feel collective responsibility in tackling the issues.

Use journey mapping & multiple cause diagrams so you can see the world through people and through the system. This can help you see issues that can’t just be resolved through improving provision, i.e. residents who are in work poverty not having the time to access retaining, no culture of continuous learning, compared by a changing and automating jobs market that will require this, challenges faced by small businesses to provide more flexible work.

5. Don’t just meet people’s needs, challenge what they need

Don’t just accept the status quo of the system and focus on what you can do as an organisation and what the user can do. This can be tempting, but further individualises people’s situations and evades collective responsibility other players in the system needed to take.

Nudge or behaviour change can be effective but if it’s not the only lever you’re using, it’s like you can make a form to apply for Personal Independence Payment easier, but if you the criteria means that it makes people suffer or affects their dignity, you’ve only tackled a process issue not had a positive impact on people’s lives.

You need to sometime be provocative. Challenge what people need as well as understanding their needs. Work out won’t works as much as what will.

Test the different layers the system, so you could test change at a geographic level, like a neighbourhood, at a sectoral level, at an organisational level, like with specific organisations or at a systemic level (i.e. basic income). You could also test different layers in a way which helps people get involved, so you could run tests which are broken down into “what can you do yourself, what can your street do, what can your neighbourhood do, what can your employer/council/shop do, what can government do”.

Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, Camden Council

6. Test different social norms

Instead of sanction-based accountability, which is pervasive across the welfare system, why not test collective accountability through a peer support network, like family group conferencing, Circle or Lambeth Living Well Collective have shown.

Lambeth Living Well Collective

Instead of just focusing on a service meeting a need, how about support that can flex, helping understand wider issues (three causes) or support other issues (Life)?

Reframe what good means based on what’s important to residents, “good work” may only mean money but more?

When you’re working on a project that wants to design with residents, start from their needs & motivations and test ideas that meet those, it can be difficult when there isn’t consensus. There are examples of ways to come to consensus, but can be helpful to reveal the trade-offs that may be needed, i.e. between focusing on a targeted cohort or service for all, between prioritising a particular need over another.

Design and systems change share sufficiently similar values that there is space for them to mingle and collide at the edges. What we can learn from both is that it’s often in the “in between spaces” that change happens. Why not between these two disciplines? For those interested in this subject, the Design Council are working with The Point People to “host series of workshops and events to bring together designers working in systems change, designers who are interested in how they could play at part, and funders who need their help and aims to develop a set of principles and practice around design for systems change”.

Head of Policy & Research @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese