Scaling Social Change Through an Ecosystems Approach

bloom dees - Scaling Social Change Through an Ecosystems Approach

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of developing our capacity for systems thinking to address the complex problems that surround us. As we consider the rapidly increasing growth and interrelated nature of these problems, the question arises as to how we can rapidly scale our change efforts to have larger impact in a shorter timeframe. There are many efforts taking place here in the U.S. and around the world that provide great examples of systemic change, yet not enough sharing of the approaches and their results is taking place in a way that creates greater impact. Systems theorists are talking about scaling and questions of scaling are on the mind of social entrepreneurs who have a clear vision of the change they want to create and limited resources to achieve their desired impact.

Working in an advisory role with Move the Mountain Leadership Center and their Circles initiative, which I introduced in an earlier blog, I have been thinking about this challenge of scaling and how to use systems thinking to address it. I came across an interesting 2008 article written by Paul Bloom and Gregory Dees from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business entitled “Cultivate you Ecosystem.” In the article, Bloom and Dees suggest that a key first step to scaling social change efforts is to map the ecosystem within which your focused impact resides. They argue that any social change is part of a larger ecosystem and to create long-lasting, systemic change, social entrepreneurs must understand the ecosystem and work within it to create a new equilibrium. I agree with their perspective and think this is an important concept to support social systems change.
An ecosystem map can identify the network of relationships, structures, patterns, and environmental conditions that created and reinforce the current situation and that need to be addressed and leveraged to create large-scale sustainable change. Working with a map of the ecosystem, social entrepreneurs and change leaders can show how their efforts create change in parts of the ecosystem and the impact of that change on other pasts and the whole.
Bloom and Dees suggest that the first step in creating an ecosystems map is to identify the ultimate intended impact and the theory of change that supports it. In the case of the Circles initiative to end poverty, the ultimate intended change is to support people in permanently moving out of poverty and to change the system barriers and polices that lock people into poverty. Their theory of change is that through mentoring, support, education, leadership development and engagement in creating change in their communities, people develop new mental models, patterns of behavior, and supporting structures to create and sustain fulfilling lives. In ending the cycle of poverty and creating an opportunity for all people to participate as engaged citizens, as a society, we can create a healthy families, communities, economic and social systems.
The next step in this ecosystems approach is to identify the players in the system. These include the resource providers, which in the case of the Circles initiative would include a wide range of organizational systems, including education, social services, financial institutions, healthcare, and government agencies. From this broad list, one would need to identify the specific organizations within the community that will be important players in the change effort, define their role in supporting change and engage key decision makers in the critical conversations and educational efforts that enable them to fulfill their role. For instance, in the work Circles is doing, child care providers are one critical resource provider enabling parents to work and go to school. The Circles team would determine how they can best support these providers in fulfilling their role and then help them build the capacity to do so. They might do that themselves or draw on partners within the system to support the effort.
Bloom and Dees’ model also identifies complementary organizations or allies, competitors, bystanders, beneficiaries, and opponents to the change. Complementary organizations are the most obvious early supporters of the change and those partnerships can often easily be cultivated. Competitors and bystanders have the potential to become allies if one can engage them in the vision and identify how the change can benefit their work. We often think too narrowly about the beneficiaries of the change and this exercise can help identify ways to approach other organizations, including competitors and bystanders, to become partners. Lastly, being aware of any opponents to the change can support leaders in developing strategies that maximize benefits and minimize resistance. Ideally, one would want to move opponents to allies through clarifying the benefits of their support and engagement.
The other critical aspect of developing the ecosystem map is articulating the environmental conditions that currently reinforce the problem and how those conditions need to change. Scenario planning could be a good tool to use in an effort to identify both the potential impact of changes in the environment on the desired change as well as the impact of the change on the environment. In working with leaders, I would recommend focusing on the external environment first, to develop the larger view of the systemic factors. That effort needs to be followed with a similar look at the environmental conditions internal to the organization leading the change, as scaling can require significant and rapid changes in structure, resources, processes and people needed to support the change effort.
While this process is complex and time consuming, the ecosystem map supports social entrepreneurs in thinking systemically, engaging the right players, and leading their desired change. The map creates a way to communicate both the process of working toward the change and the systemic impact of the change. A powerful picture of the systemic nature of the change along with stories that communicate the personal impact is a compelling way to draw in the people and resources needed to achieve the desired results.

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