Goal Getting: 4 Components to Systems Success

Goal Getting: 4 Components to Systems Success

By Mary Aviles + Melissa Vander Laan

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.James Clear

It seems like many of our projects involve systems: ecosystems, collaboratives, movement builders, and others. But, so often, people react to the word ‘system’ they way they do to the words ‘math’ or ‘data’ or ‘infrastructure.’ Their eyes glaze over. They nod, but not necessarily knowingly. They look a little panicked. Systems thinking feels vast, overwhelming. And yet, many of our clients are entrenched in the work of complex social problems. In order to achieve transformative outcomes, system-level changes are usually necessary. We need each other to tackle the big, complex social issues. No one organization will be successful going it alone.

There are several ways to envision systems. Merriam-Webster defines a system as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” A system may be limited to within one organization or department, for example, a customer experience system. Or a system may exist across a number of organizations, reliant on the “handoffs” or exchanges between them—think of a patient and a health system. Some systems are specifically architected, while others evolve gradually, both intentionally and inadvertently. Examples from our client work include:

  • a shared fund for an area group of early education providers

  • a region of entities that provide entrepreneurial support services

  • partner organizations working on interdependent social issues 

  • an area collaborative disrupting the non-profit sector status quo

When systems are coordinated to address complex problems and incentives are aligned, real change is possible. Systems represent the potential for significant efficiencies, shared resources, and scalable outcomes. Your work is most likely already occurring within several types of systems. But, how do you know if there is potential for a systemic approach in your work? Be on the lookout for the following characteristics:

  1. From the perspective of the stakeholder or beneficiary, are there entities working on a common need?

  2. Among these entities is there an opportunity to identify shared goals?

  3. Is there a willingness to collaborate?

  4. Is there an opportunity to share resources or would “banding together” allow unique access to a shared pool of funding or other capacity?

Of course, the downside to a systemic approach is the potential for confusion and misalignment. We have noticed that systems success requires a number of components. The first is leadership. Leadership may mean a neutral, third party or a group like an advisory board. The leadership is responsible for a coordinated strategy that directs activities, communication, obtains consensus, holds members accountable, centralizes data collection, sets standards, assures quality, establishes success metrics, and conducts tracking and reporting. Any of these may be outsourced or shared, at the leadership’s discretion.

Another critical component, and one of the earliest tasks that the leadership should undertake, is to map the system. This exercise helps all involved entities to fully understand the constellation of relationships and services and the various behaviors and incentives at play. For example, when one of our clients mapped their ecosystem, they discovered an inconsistency in connectedness: a very few of the organizations within their network experienced most of the referral activity. Mapping the system helps to identify stakeholder barriers and develop solutions. When our youth development network client identified the difficulty parents have in finding safe, quality summer programming that fit their schedules, we were able to help them develop, launch, and promote a summer program locator.

Finally, a systems approach requires project management dependent upon meeting incremental milestones. A series of “baby steps” builds trust and confidence. It also allows for on-the-fly learning and course corrections, if necessary, without significant backtracking. And, importantly, it gives the community an opportunity to celebrate a series of small victories, critical to sustaining momentum on what can sometimes be a very long journey. However, equally as critical, is a shared vision of what success looks like and explicit understanding of how milestones met equate to progress.

For more information about how we can use systems thinking and coordinated strategies to jumpstart change in your organization, contact us.

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