“To affect systems change we need to focus on shifting the conditions holding the problem in place”
I heard this quote on a recent webinar that The Collective Impact Forum ran on Where to start with evaluating systems change. Over 4,000 people joined the session. Reassuring that we aren’t alone in grappling with this!
It wasn’t a definitive guide on how to do it. Instead, there was a consistent message throughout that how to evaluate systems change is emerging. There isn’t yet a shared way of doing it. But there is a way to start thinking about it based on learning to date.
I received plenty of feedback and questions to the last blog in February along similar lines. What are we learning from all the different places that we can distill and start to think about now in how we approach our work and evaluate it? There was also a common comment that for many there isn't significant funds to invest in evaluation at this stage.
Difficult questions. A way forward may lie within a specific word.
Conditions, conditions, conditions
On the webinar above, conditions were mentioned throughout. On a recent Greater Manchester learning webinar conditions were mentioned a lot.
The We Are Undefeatable national campaign to support the 15 million people who live with one or more long-term health conditions in England.
I’ve been working with colleagues in Oxfordshire the last few months seeking to appoint a systems evaluator for the healthy place shaping approach in Cherwell. During the procurement process, the word conditions kept cropping up with applicants.
The core purpose of our work, that binds us all together; creating the conditions for an active nation. Is all this a sign of the purpose strengthening?
If you Google the word the definitions include:
(noun): the circumstances or factors affecting the way in which people live or work, especially with regards to their well-being.
(verb): have a significant influence on or determine the manner or outcome of something.
Affect and influence
Does this mean what are the circumstances or factors (the conditions) that enable people to live active lifestyles? What affects and influences this?
Are the roads safe enough to bike to work on; If you get ill does your doctor understand the benefits of being active; Does your workplace have policies that encourage you to not sit down for long periods of time; Is wearing any type of shoes that you can easily walk around in acceptable at any occasion; Does the estate you live on provide spaces that you feel safe to walk about in at any time of the day; Do you know where to find out what opportunities are available for you to play a sport that you are interested in; Are you confident going out running at any time of the day in your kit.
These appear to be the type of conditions holding the problem in place. The problem of us not being more active.
Imagine, for example, that a workplace introduced a policy advocating walking meetings. One of the conditions keeping the problem in place has shifted. And it’s fairly easy to measure. New policy introduced. Something has changed, fact. Do we tick that as a success and progress?
The shift in policy will have been a real positive for some and no doubt create wide ranging health benefits. For some though they might dislike walking meetings, don’t feel it’s an inclusive way of doing things or it’s just not how they like to operate. An unintended consequence. Does the positive outweigh the negatives here? Is it progress if someone thought it was a positive, but another person thought it was a negative?
What about the people for whom walking meetings is just the norm? And the biggest factor prohibiting them from being as active as they want to be is time restraints because of their family life. Have we added any value here?
On the Greater Manchester learning webinar, they asked attendees what are the most significant influences on how much you will move today? Look at the wide range of responses.
Systems thinking is measuring
The conversation reminded me of FSG’s Six Conditions of Systems Change.
“Thinking about systems change not as a person that needs to be fixed, but a set of conditions that surround that individual that we need to work on”
Thinking about how to address all those factors that influence how much people move day to day is enough to send the brain fuzzy. But I found the quote a useful way to think about addressing the scale of the challenge. Systems thinking in essence.
If each of the 6 conditions in this diagram were positively shifted to support an active society would it help people to move more? Would it address the influences listed?
Structural conditions. Policies, rules, organisational practices, information. Eg, quality of information about physical activity opportunities or the way a community is designed. Are these the factors that are easiest to measure as they are most visible if they shift? And they are where we feel most comfortable talking about the value of our work?
Relational conditions. Quality of relationships between people and different organisations and where the power of decision-making sits. Are we just starting to understand how to measure these?
Transformative conditions. Habits of thoughts and deeply held beliefs that influence how we all operate and see the world. Do we know how to measure these?
Does the inverted triangle also reflect our overall current comfort and expertise in working on and measuring these conditions?
A need to simplify the narrative
The Six Conditions of System Change could be seen as a different perspective on the ‘onion’ diagram that we probably see most when talking about this. There is lots of overlap.
The Strategic Outputs, the indicators that Sport England are using to understand the specific role that Active Partnerships are having in creating the conditions for an active nation, are also looking for the same type of things. Shifts in policy, resources, individuals….
How we could think about systems change and measurement of our work
There are clearly numerous frameworks and ideas, both long standing and emerging, about systems change and how to measure if it has happening. Many of which we are just starting to understand.
However, emerging learning suggests there are consistent ways we can start to think about it. To seek to simplify the task in hand and our approach. And the way we talk about it.
The need for systems thinking. Thinking deeply about the circumstances and factors (the conditions) holding the problem in place.
“…the ability to see how systems and their parts interact with and influence each other; and how these systems create and contribute to specific problems…”
Accepting that looking at the task in this way won’t provide definitive answers but deeper insight in to how to affect change.
Mix the methods
There isn’t a single framework that will help to measure everything. Instead selecting the measurement method relevant to the condition. For example, observing a change in policy requires a very different method to knowing if that policy shift has changed the way in which decisions are made or how people think about the benefits of being physical active. Any shift in a condition will be interconnected to another shift and will have intended and unintended consequences. It all matters.
Make sense of things
Creating space to reflect individually and make sense of what is happening for yourself as a systems thinker. Doing this with others to make collective sense. Develop shared views on where effort should be directed. Embracing that this is the day to day work, not an extra measurement requirement. Facilitating spaces for people to think differently about the challenge of shifting the conditions.
“Real progress requires exceptional attention to the detailed and often mundane work of noticing what is invisible to many”
For now, this may be a way forward in our shared journey of creating the conditions for an active nation…