An Oxford University expert on gender issues in the developing world sits next to a leader of the organic food movement in the UK and opposite a suited, shaven headed gentleman who works on systems change in finance. Eyes are fixed, heads turned, pens poised, as a blonde American lady shares her story of leading systems change in fish.
What is Leaders Shaping Market Systems?
Rachel from the Lab core team has been working together with Joy Anderson of Criterion Ventures and Cheryl Dahle of the Future of Fish in the US to help build a community of practice comprised of the ‘Leaders Shaping Market Systems.’
It’s designed for people who’ve demonstrated a commitment to the work of systems-level change to come together and collaborate.
We want to build a better understand systems change so that it can be done more effectively – identifying commonalities across different efforts, creating tools that can support this work and driving towards more coordination of efforts and resources.
This started in May 2012 in Berkeley California (you can read a blog from that gathering here) and continued in London, February, 2013.
Here are some of the key findings from the London gathering of around 30 systems change practitioners including leaders including Indy Johar from Zero Zero, Marc Ventresca from Oxford University, Kyra Phillips from The Misfit Economy and Luis Osorio-Cortes from Prime Advocates. It took place at Chartered Accountants Hall.
What were the characteristics of these Leaders Shaping Market Systems?
Leaders are willing to ask big questions that disrupt the status quo. They face pushback from those powerful within in the existing system and their legitimacy is often called into question. But they can, and often do, step into systems they know little about and make a big impact. Their ability to see things in a new light, to understand the different perspectives of a system and to be an honest broker, allows them to create change, if they can stand their ground.
Strategies are always experiments. There are no blueprints. Leaders have to be willing to try tactics out, to listen, learn, reflect, recalibrate and adapt their strategies quickly as needed.
They need to win the trust of people within a market system, by asking questions and genuinely seeking to understand. And while there are no off-the-shelf business models for doing this type of work, failure will happen, so admitting what they do and don’t know also becomes an important skill set to remain credible.
- Masters of language
Leaders have to be skilled at lexicon building. They have to find the words to express what they are trying to do, in a world where there are few examples. They have to submerge themselves in the sector to understand its language and to translate across different parts of a system that don’t understand one another.
What are the common strategies?
These clustered around a number of themes. There were many examples of different strategies used in different combinations and many tensions and challenges uncovered in each. But this provides some insight into how Leaders Shaping Market Systems are approaching change. .
Pick the right time
Leaders are sensitive to timing. A crisis or a public outcry can lead to opportunity for market system change.
Most projects begin by building a team of ambassadors or champions who believe in the intention of the project and can lend their credibility to open doors.
There was a lot of discussion around power dynamics and whether influencers in the current system were the best ambassadors for change. There were also questions around how to bring consistency to a distributed community of champions. Do you, for example, pick a number of ambassadors who already talking about your issues or do you want to cultivate a new community specifically designed to share a carefully controlled message?
Map the system
Leaders build a deep understanding of system dynamics. Who are the players? What do they do? Who has the most power and influence? Why? Anthropology plays an important role here. The aim is to identify dysfunction and design strategies that innovate at the root of these problems, acknowledging trade-offs and unintended consequences. Knowing which levers for change to pick and work on, was a common challenge at this point.
A key role of Leaders Shaping Market Systems is building new communities. Tactics were usually to invite with a broad and inclusive scope and create a space for people to engage without defining the specifics of how change will happen. Projects brought people together who don’t normally meet, from different disciplines, to encourage them to go beyond previous disputes and to work in collaboration. Knowing how to build the kind of community people wanted to be part of, was therefore an important skillset. These communities became places to reimagine the future.
Leaders faced difficult decisions about whether to engage many actors broadly or a few more deeply. There were tensions about when to establish a common, collective goal and when to keep messaging vague to invite maximum participation. And there was an acknowledgement that inviting the community into decision making shifts power. It was sometimes difficult to move from asking for advice into making strategic decisions regardless of consensus.
This is about changing the dominate narrative of a system; reframing problems as opportunities, surfacing taboos and making the implicit, explicit. Sometimes this involved using unlikely or creative channels to market. Press releases for early academic findings, participatory events for policy makers, hoodies with slogans emblazoned at conferences. Sometimes this involved raising the profile of new leaders to spread the word and offering examples to make ideas more concrete.
Work with the existing power base
Many projects engaged powerful players in the media, government, big companies or NGO’s. However, there was a great deal of discussion about how much time you should spend converting those with institutional power V’s working with people who ‘get it’? About which kind of power should you be working with and which should you be questioning? And a clear balance to be struck designing the ‘cocktail’ of small and large players you work with, understanding how they could both play a role in your strategy.
This was about changing the rules of the game by inserting disruptive models into the system to change it. Leaders did this by building the capacity of businesses that have solutions to match the leverage points for change they had identified.
There was a strong feeling that these experiments needed to be protected as they developed, to ‘guard the prototypes’. There were decisions to be made about whether to incubate ideas or to accelerate existing businesses and about whether to go deep with a few players or broad with many entrepreneurs. Leaders asked ‘should you spend more time on successful or struggling entrepreneurs’ and ‘how many shots should you take at changing a certain lever if it’s not working?’
Finally, Leaders Shaping Market Systems worked on new standards and behaviours as levels for change. They argued that changes needed were shifts in values and relationships and that these required special tactics and a bigger picture perspective. There were many challenges here. Dominant culture was resistant, but it was felt that if really sought to understand the assumptions behind culture, the darkest parts could create opportunity.
There were a number of other challenges that emerged around the organisational structure of these projects. Questions were raised like who funds systems change? How should you work with consultants? And who should you hire to do this work?
The next gathering will be held in New York in June. Cheryl and Rachel will be working with Joy to help convene a smaller group of practitioners who can learn from one another and become case studies of what this type of work look likes.