Katherine Milligan on Systems Change, Collaboration and learnings from COVID-19 If you are interested in social innovation or social entrepreneurship, you have certainly stumbled upon the name of Katherine Milligan. We talked to her about Systems Change, collaboration and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Katherine, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. In your work, you are intensively involved with social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and systems change. In recent years, the latter has been used in an almost inflationary manner. Can you briefly explain what you define as systems change? Katherine Milligan: Yes, it’s true - systems change is a term that gets tossed around a lot, and it’s hard to wade through the multitude of definitions and frameworks out there. Many of them are highly academic or full of jargon and thus hard to understand. An interpretation I frequently use because it’s simple, clear, and evocative comes from Social Innovation Generation (SIG): Systems change is shifting the conditions holding the problem in place. That’s very useful and very evocative - this notion that problems are held in place by a set of conditions - particularly if you know what those conditions are. During the Public Entrepreneurship Academy, you introduced participants to systems change and a conceptual framework that helps decode systems. Why do you think this knowledge is relevant to individuals working on change projects, particularly those from the public sector? KM: Let’s start with unpacking the framework “the six conditions of systems change,” as once we get a handle on what those conditions are, the relevance for public sector leaders becomes clear. A few years ago, one of my colleagues John Kania articulated that framework in a seminal paper, The Water of Systems Change, together with his co-authors Peter Senge and Mark Kramer. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard from social change leaders that this framework has informed their strategy or given them a language to describe things they didn’t have a language for. (Image source: John Kania, Mark Kramer & Peter Senge, “The Water of Systems Change”, FSG. https://www.fsg.org/publications/water_of_systems_change/ ) There are three points I’d like to draw our attention to. The first is that the conditions exist at three levels: the structural level of systems, “labelled explicit,” include policies, practices, and resource flows. The second level, “explicit-implicit,” includes power dynamics and relationships. The third and deepest level of systems, labelled “implicit,” are our mental models. “Explicit” and “implicit” is just a fancy way of saying that these conditions are visible to varying degrees by the actors in a system, even if all of the conditions are always in play. We can all “see” a system’s structures. We can identify a clear shift if a new law has been passed or regulations have been changed. We can tally up the resources flowing towards certain issues or certain communities. So, these conditions can be seen by everyone and even quantified in many cases. But power and relationships? They’re certainly visible to some actors in the system - especially those who have the least power - but invisible to many. Our mental models form the deepest levels of systems. Our belief systems, our worldviews, and our assumptions about the root causes of social and environmental problems and how we make progress addressing them are always operating in the background yet rarely explicitly articulated. Often, they don’t even enter our conscious mind, much less our conversation. The second is that the six conditions are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. We can probably all think of an example from our own lives or our own work where a shift in one condition catalyzed a shift in another. Maybe a change in legislators’ mental models triggered policy reform. Or a change in power dynamics altered the allocation of resources. Surely many of us can cite an example where dysfunctional or mistrustful relationships between individuals or organizations slowed down the adoption of new practices. That’s a common one. So, the point here is that if we acknowledge these conditions as mutually reinforcing, then the work of systems change means working at all three levels of systems simultaneously. The third is that, by and large, that’s not what’s happening. Most social change leaders I know spend 90% of their time and attention focused on shifting the structural conditions - a system’s policies, practices, and resource flows. There are a lot of reasons for that - those conditions lend themselves to commonly understand and quantifiable KPIs, we can report on them, it’s what funders want to see, we stay in our comfort zone as analytical thinkers - yet a system’s structures will remain entrenched and vulnerable to snapback if we do not challenge ourselves to build healthy relationships across the system, shift power imbalances, and alter mental models. The key question then becomes: How do we do the work of shifting the conditions at these deeper levels of systems? I don’t think anyone has the answer, but we have observed a set of principles and more emergent ways of working that move us in that direction, which we articulate in our article “The Relational Work of Systems”. No single individual, intervention, or organization can “scale” social change alone. We must work collectively to address the injustices within our systems and the harm being done to our planet. When we talk about systems change, the word collaboration usually comes up. The underlying assumption is that we can only achieve systemic transformation collaboratively. Can you explain why we need to start from this premise? KM: No single individual, intervention, or organization can “scale” social change alone. We must work collectively to address the injustices within our systems and the harm being done to our planet. We know this deep down, yet so many of our structures and policies are set up to find, reward, and support single point interventions or individual organizations rather than prioritizing and incentivizing collaboration among organizations who each have something to bring to the table. The question is how to collaborate across organizational boundaries in ways that go beyond transactional partnerships, or merely scaling programmatic interventions, to truly shift systems towards equity and justice. To pick this up, in your latest article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, you describe what many of us already assume: The way we currently collaborate is simply not up to the scale of the task, given the complexity of the social and environmental (grand) challenges we are trying to solve. What do you see as the essential points you would like leaders to consider in order to change the way they collaborate on a systems level? KM: Let’s go back to the six conditions framework and think about what it really takes to shift conditions at the deeper levels of systems - power dynamics, relationships, and mental models. As we say in the article, purely technical, rational approaches to systems change will not make much of a dent in shifting power or altering our most deeply held beliefs. We can’t just get leaders in a room (or on a Zoom), show them a bunch of data, and then expect that our facts and figures will alter everyone’s mental models and convince them to work together differently. It just doesn’t work that way. Catalyzing profound shifts in our mental models and in how power is exercised requires fundamentally different experiences and deeper ways of being in relationship with our collaborators. So, one message for leaders to consider is that by placing greater emphasis on shifting the deeper conditions of systems - by intentionally working on power dynamics, on building relationships and connections, and on shifting our mental models - we can create the conditions to address a system’s structural conditions in an emergent way. A second message I’d ask leaders to consider comes in the form of a question: whose mental models do we need to shift? Often, when people think of mental models, they immediately think of the ‘beneficiaries’: community health workers and patients, or teachers and students. Their mental models are the ones we need to shift. But what about our own? We must be willing to examine our biases, assumptions, and blind spots; reckon with our own privilege and our role in perpetuating inequities; and be willing to let go of being in control. We are all actors in the systems they are trying to change, and that change must begin from within. If there’s one thing we should have learned over the past two years, it is that complex, adaptive problems defy tidy logic models and reductive technical solutions. And a last question regarding collaboration: do you see important lessons that we could or should have learned from the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, an acute grand challenge? KM: Well as we say in our article, if there’s one thing we should have learned over the past two years, it is that complex, adaptive problems defy tidy logic models and reductive technical solutions. Any organization that completed their strategy roadmap or submitted a grant proposal complete with three-year outcome targets in February 2020 had to rip them up and deal with the crisis in real-time as events unfolded and operating conditions shifted under their feet - and then shifted again. We all had a crash course in emergence. Because exogenous events were so extreme, it was easy (or easier) to alter our belief systems. In relatively short order, policies, practices, and resource flows shifted - not just towards frontline workers and PPE, but in terms of how funders communicated with social change organizations on the ground, how trust and accountability were built and maintained in the face of travel restrictions, and why the flexibility and capability to discontinue activities that no longer make sense and quickly adapt to changing circumstances is so vital. Do we really want to go back to our pre-pandemic ways of working, demanding that every activity for the next three years be mapped out (and adhered to) before we even begin, with little to no wiggle room for pre-determined outcomes that we claim are achievable by the end of the grant period? Or do we integrate the lessons learned over the course of the pandemic by adopting new ways of learning and collaborating together as a recognition that the process is the solution? “No going back to business as usual” has become a catchphrase. For me, what that means is we must invest in more relational and emergent approaches to transforming systems. Photo credit: Social Impact Award About Katherine Milligan Katherine Milligan is a Director at the Collective Change Lab, a think tank that provides practical inspiration, insight, and guidance for achieving transformative collective change. Additionally to being named one of the "Top 100 Women in Social Entrepreneurship" by the Euclid Network, she is a member of numerous innovation and entrepreneurship networks, including as a founding member of the Geneva Innovation Movement, an elea Fellow at IMD, a member of the Accelerate2030 Advisory Council, an Unreasonable Mentor, a board member of Water for People, and a member of The Wellbeing Project's Learning Partner Group. She teaches courses on social innovation and entrepreneurship at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and Fordham University, and is the author of 20 publications, articles, and blogs published by the International Institute of Economics, Stanford Social Innovation Review, MIT journal Innovations, Forum Agenda, and Harvard Business School. She previously was Executive Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the sister organization of the World Economic Forum that supports the world's largest community of late-stage social entrepreneurs. Katherine received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her Master's in Public Policy from Harvard University, where she was a Pforzheimer Scholar and Sheldon Knox Fellow.