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Systems change requires system strategies

Seth Reynolds and Charlotte Lamb

Every organisation places itself at the centre of its universe. Whilst we will consider other organisations and the wider environment as part of our planning, we’ll generally frame them as either supporters or blockers for our own mission. Rarely do we consider where we sit in the wider system. Making the kind of system-wide changes that we believe we need in the UK charity sector means radically rethinking how we approach strategy. 

We set our organisational strategy because we think it’s the best way to achieve our mission. Yet, hard as it may be to admit itnone of us can actually achieve our missions alone. No one organisation can eliminate homelessness or fix the prison system. We therefore focus our strategies on a particular aspect of the issue, and on maintaining and growing our organisation. 

Putting ourselves at the centre skews our focus and hides the rest of the system from our viewParadoxically, this then makes it harder for us to actually achieve our mission. Our best laid strategic plans are in fact unwitting hinderances to mission accomplishment. 

We generally don’t consult with other organisations when we set our strategies, so the lack of shared perspective or coordination perhaps make duplication, inefficiency, silosand gaps in provision inevitable. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that our strategic planning processes are not fit for purpose. The very concept of a strategic plan came to the charity sector, as with many management tools, from the corporate sector, which itself adapted it from its military origins. In those contexts, each organisation’s purposeits obligation to investors or commandersis indeed to become stronger and defeat the competition.  

The assumptions that underpin this approach to strategy do not apply to the non-profit sector. Yet we’ve never really developed an alternative approach.    

We need to go further than just factoring in the external environment; we need an entirely new approach.

We need to move from an organisation-centric view to an ecosystem view, one informed by greater humility and honesty about our role, our limitations, and our interdependence with others in our system. Click To Tweet

We would not seek to design this new approach itself in a short blog. Collective strategy processes should be developed collectively. But as a starter for ten, here are six principles for moving toward collective strategies, or system strategies, which we hope to co-develop further through our Rethink Rebuild programme alongside partners.   

From singular to system

  1. Perspective shift: The first step is understanding that achieving our mission means stepping outside of our own organisational view.  
  2. System analysis: We need to move from casting others as threats or allies, towards systems analysis to reveal who else we should be collaborating with and on what. Systems mapping tools can help here.  
  3. Contribution: Systems mapping can also help us see which role we are best placed to perform within our system. Crucially, it can save us from casting ourselves as lead actor. Understanding others’ roles helps us see our points of unique contribution. It may also reveal new ‘root cause’ factors that we should focus on.  
  4. Participation: As with the systems analysis, the more eyes present on the process, the greater the diversity of perspectives and the wider the system view. Setting system strategies should therefore involve as many people as possible, such as stake holders, beneficiaries, collaborators, funders, and even competitors.  
  5. Coordination: The potential of system strategies will be realised when we coordinate to align our organisational strategies. If we collectively agree the priority needs of our respective systems and coordinate our programme strategies, we can minimise duplication, increase efficiencies and maximise system impact. We should start small, with a group of closely connected organisations, whether that be geographically or thematically defined, as we learn how to set strategy together. NPC and The Childhood Trust hope to trial more collaboration on strategy with a cohort of charities working in the children’s sector through The Rebound Programme. There are proven models we can learn from for coordinating strategies and activities across a system, such as Collective Impact  
  6. Iteration: When working in a multi-agency context, it is even more important to be aware of changes in the system, and within other agencies. Recent events have brought home the need to be agile and adaptive in both our strategies and the activities that flow from them. This means regularly iterating strategies along with our partners in response to changes in the field. 

Seeing the bigger picture

Developing system strategies does not mean negating responsibilities to our organisations, but it does mean reminding ourselves that they are a means to an end, not the end in themselves. Most charities who work in similar fields will have pretty similar missions. Working in a strategically coordinated way will increase the chances of achieving them. This is good for all.

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We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions, comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…

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James Harper

I’ve just read this and the first sentence really hit home – we see the operating world through the lens of our organisation, yet as third sector organisations what we’re focused on is a systemic problem, so to fulfil our missions we need to shift our perspective to the problem we’re here to solve.It made me think of the steps of: 1 looking at the galaxy that is the social issue 2 constellating the solutions and 3 constellating providers including ourselves to better understand our role and potential contribution.

We’re embarking on a strategic review for the second half of this year and I’d be really interested in speaking about how we can use your ideas in doing this differently.

Seth Reynolds

Thanks for the comment James – I like the galaxy / constellations metaphor! I’ll drop you a line now re the strategic review