5 lessons on creating systems change

Michael Radke
Article by: Michael Radke
5 lessons on creating systems change

From climate change to institutionalized bigotry, the largest challenges we face today are systemic in nature. They exist within complex, adaptive, volatile human societies. And while that can make tackling them seem daunting, the good news is that human history is full of examples of coordinated and successful efforts to change the underlying fabric of our world for the better.


Systemic change comes from efforts that range from the obvious to the opaque, but there are a few lessons from some of history’s greatest systems leaders that are worth carrying with us as we try to change the world.

1. Pursue pragmatic collaboration

Nelson Mandela reminds us to consider the value of bringing everyone along, not just those who agree with us. By their nature, systems are inclusive and so to change systems, you have to design inclusive interventions. Systems change is primarily the work of bringing together all of the stakeholders to drive societal level change; empowering those with big visions, influencing those invested in the status quo to move, and helping those on the front lines to work together with efficacy and efficiency.

lessons on creating systems change

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” –– Nelson Mandela

2. Make long plays

One of the most under-appreciated lessons Gandhi left us is to make long plays. Direct causality is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to determine in complex systems, so when it comes to creating lasting change you have to work with both a sense of the interconnectedness of your context, and an acceptance that you may not live to see, nor get credit for, the outcomes you dedicate your life to.

lessons on creating systems change

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important.” –– Mohandas K. Gandhi

3. Hold a sense of history

While “disruption” has become the currency of our time, MLK taught us that innovation isn’t exclusively left to ideas that have never been thought of, or even tried before. Having an awareness of the journey of the system you’re working in can help you understand where the system is headed; and familiarity of what has been tried before can help you build on past success, or retry ideas that were launched before their time.

lessons on creating systems change

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” –– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

4. Seek evolution, not revolution

Social change is at best a failure – and at worst dangerous – when you let perfect become the enemy of the good. John F. Kennedy’s vision for a lasting peace was pragmatic because it embodied an evolutionary mindset essential for systemic change. He taught us the lesson of using the best of a system to fix the broken bits, to influence the positive growth of systems that often protect many, so they can help all.

lessons on creating systems change

“Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace—based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions…” –– John F. Kennedy

5. Get to the ground breaking

Mary Robinson’s career has brought us a series of well-considered actions that encourage us to move from the blueprint to the building. Systemic change may originate from systems thinking, strategic planning, and design, but societal shifts only come through the hard work of many teams across a system. The best plan in the world means nothing if we don’t act.

lessons on creating systems change

“The aim of human rights, if I may borrow a term from engineering, is to move beyond the design and drawing-board phase, to move beyond thinking and talking about the foundations stones – to laying those foundation stones, inch by inch, together.” –– Mary Robinson

Mike Radke is owner of ION studios, a systems change-focused research, strategy, and innovation firm that serves social change initiatives around the world. Mike has spent 15 years on the ground in the social sector working in positions from the front lines to the board room, and brings a practitioner’s eye to the work of designing and implementing social change. During his graduate work he spent several years studying the systems and leaders involved in social movements around the world. Today ION studios work with movements, organizations, businesses, and governments on five continents to develop large-scale social change.

Michael is one of the inspiring leaders who took part in Class 5 of the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To discover how the Executive Leadership Program could be the next step on your own lifelong learning journey, visit the program page.