The Art of Systems Change: Eight Guiding Principles for a Green and Fair Future

The most pressing humanitarian and environmental issues of today–such as health, conservation, infrastructure, and education–are all interconnected. Working in silos will not get us the future we both need and want. To transform to a better future, we must embrace complexity to create sustainable change.

WWF's 2018 Fuller Symposium explored systems thinking as a means to devise creative solutions to complex conservation, development, and environmental challenges. Many of the symposium's speakers, together with WWF scientists and staff, participated in a Book Sprint after the event to distill their collective wisdom on effective ways to understand and change complex systems. Their work resulted in a new book called The Art of Systems Change, which is now free to download.

The 15 authors represent fields as diverse as engineering, computer science, anthropology, and ecology. One thing unites them–their deeply held conviction that the world we live in is complex and interconnected. To truly change the world, we need to shift the way we think and embed complex systems thinking into how we plan, collaborate, and act.

Using The Art of Systems Change

The book has been designed to speak to change-makers working across all scales and sectors who seek to make systemic and lasting change. Part 1 introduces the fundamental tenets of systems thinking and describes their implications for our understanding of the world. Part 2 presents a set of mutually reinforcing principles that can guide our actions as we work to address our most pressing environmental and societal challenges.

In each chapter, we introduce a principle, why it's important, and how to work with it. We also provide simple 'daily practice' prompts that can help you cultivate both your individual and institution's capacity for changing systems. Throughout the book, we share stories and examples of both complex problems and systems and share insights on methods and approaches that can help us work more effectively in complex systems.

Welcome to the systems journey!

Eight principles for systems change

Principle 1: See ourselves in the system. We are all integral parts of the systems we strive to change. By recognizing this, we can tune into the feedback loops between our individual and collective actions, which empowers us to be strong and resilient agents of change.

Suggested Practice: One day a week, document at least five reactions (positive, negative, or neutral) you have to situations you face. What dynamics are behind these situations? Observe over a period of one to two months how your reactions evolve.

Principle 2: Identify our frames. How we frame our problems determines the solutions we seek. By developing the ability to adjust our frames when needed, we increase our capacity to better place problems within the context of the systems that generate them.

Suggested Practice: In your next team meeting when discussing how to address a new problem, ask yourself two questions: How am I defining the boundary of this problem? Who might define the boundary of the problem differently?

Principle 3: Co-create with intention. Creating lasting social and environmental change relies on the behaviors of all actors within a system. Co-creation helps create a more complete understanding of the relationships and structure of a system, and enables actors to effectively tackle systemic issues together.

Suggested Practice: Take a (virtual) lunch break with someone you don’t usually spend time with. Over time, watch how your relationship evolves with this person.

Principle 4: Explore time and scale. There are intrinsic time delays between action and response, which impact the results we see and when we see them. Systems cross multiple scales; and complex systems are nested within each other at different scales.

Suggested Practice: For one month, write down a daily observation about the system within which you work. Each day, make another observation about the same system, but focus on a different aspect. Observe how your perceptions of your system evolve over time.

Principle 5: Find simplicity in complexity. While complex, systems can be understood by distilling patterns, trends, or principles that reflect underlying structures and behaviors. Simple solutions can be identified and focused on to create foundations and coalitions for long-term change.

Suggested Practice: Draw a simple picture of your problem that you would use to explain to someone who doesn't know anything about it.

Principle 6: Experiment iteratively. We usually have to act with incomplete understanding of complex systems and their dynamics. Iterative experimentation allows us to adapt our programs as we "learn by doing".

Suggested Practice: Make a small change in your daily routine. It may be as small or as large as you like–the point is to plan, try, experience, get feedback, and improve.

Principle 7:Align structure with change. The structures of formal organizations and institutions can either inhibit or advance our capacity to operate with the dynamics and trajectories of complex systems.

Suggested Practice: Bring together two people who don't know each other from different divisions in your organization, who might not normally engage. Join them for a (virtual) coffee or lunch, and over time observe how and if their relationship evolves.

Principle 8: Act based on evidence. Working within complex systems requires us to be more intentional in what we're measuring and why, and how information is used to inform decisions made by people and organizations at different scales.

Suggested Practice: Identify a stakeholder in your system and ask yourself: What kind of evidence would actually influence them to change the course of action? What information do they need to make decisions? What factors might limit their actions and decision-making process?