The father of Total Quality Management, William Edwards Deming, was famous for saying, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” After a decade of work in the social sector, I came across this quote and it was a life-changing moment. It spoke to me and answered one of my most vexing problems – why is social change so difficult? While in business school, I spent hours and hours pouring over  books on system dynamics, behavioral economics and social marketing, and have spent the last six years translating the work for the social sector. Now, many others have found their way to this idea – spending less time on quick fixes and more time designing systems that work for people to thrive. We believe systems change will be a major trend in 2016 and are dedicating our 2016 edition of “Words to Know” to this game-changing concept.

In the social sector, we often have nested systems, where large and small systems, each comprised of their own interactive components, also interact. Think of it like Russian “matryoshka” dolls that fit one into the other. To affect social change, we must re-think multiple dimensions and adjust the system to create greater alignment.

To truly transform our social system, here are some word shifts to inspire fresh thinking in the new year:

  • Facilitatorship vs. Leadership: While leadership works in a top-down system, most systems and leaders lead best when they take a bottom-up approach, dispersing authority and building buy-in from multiple stakeholders. While a bottom-up approach comes with risk, it also comes with many rewards. This shift to facilitative leadership (we call it facilitatorship) often leads to greater sustainability and more control over the system. It also leads to more co-creation and coopetition.
  • Financing vs. Funding: Money is the fuel that feeds the system and allows for its expansion or contraction. Unfortunately, in social systems, we have a fragmented funding model built on short-term funding fundraising dollars. This leads to instability and an inability to build a system to last. To bring about system change, we have to shift to financing the system by collectively looking at funding streams, braiding funding to address multiple issues, and creating new approaches (e.g., pay for success, impact investing) to invest in impactful social solutions for the long term.
  • Insights vs. Data: We have done a great job collecting data in the social sector, but a less-than-great job at interpreting it and using it to guide decision-making. We often tell clients that we would prefer they collect less data and analyze more meaningful data to glean true insights into how and why their programs are working or can be improved. For system change to work, you have to adjust as patterns emerge and new insights come to light.
  • Social Marketing vs. Marketing: In the social sector, we have focused a lot of attention on awareness of social issues, but unfortunately this awareness has not translated into action. It reminds us of the maxim from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela: “You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.” We need to disturb individuals enough to change their behavior and demand change of others. This requires a movement toward more sophisticated delivery of key messages – social marketing. We will be covering this concept more in 2016.
  • Evolution vs. Revolution: It is tempting to want change to happen fast. However, as many of us who have studied change management know, when you move fast, you either lose quality or commitment or both. As a general rule, systems prefer to remain in a stable state. This is actually good – otherwise, we would live in total chaos. But, it can be frustrating to those wanting or needing change to happen. We prefer to resist the temptation and opt for evolution, which is the precursor to breakthroughs. If you opt for revolution, you can often leave yourself vulnerable to breakdowns.


If you missed our word shifts from 2013, 2014, or 2015, please check them out! We welcome your feedback on these or other word shifts. Future blogs will further delve into each of these topics and, as always, we welcome your help as a TrendSpotter.

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