How to Explain Systems Change to a 13-Year-Old
Innovation requires bringing people and ideas together. But sometimes the way we communicate about our work can get in the way of collaboration.
Eilidh is 13-year-old burgeoning expert in systems change. Just ask her.
“A system is anything organized for a purpose—kind of like my school,” she said. “And a systems map is a visual of how things are connected and work together. We can use it to understand and improve that set of things, which can improve people’s lives.”
“A system is anything organized for a purpose—kind of like my school.”
Full disclosure: Eilidh didn’t develop this definition completely by herself. She and her classmates spent about an hour last week working with 60 leaders in innovation—listening, learning and asking questions about the value of innovation tools like systems mapping.
The occasion was the “Building Innovation Into Social Impact Work” convening in Rome. Sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation, the convening brought together 60 leaders in innovation to discuss innovation tools, how they can be applied and how they need to be refined.
The tools under discussion—systems mapping, horizon scanning, scenario planning, social innovation labs, and others—hold powerful potential to help us look at problems in new ways and identify opportunities for innovation. They can also sound a little intimidating.
That can have real consequences for our ability to create impact. The backbone of innovation is collaboration: To find innovative solutions, we need to bring people and ideas together, often in unexpected ways. To change systems, we have to work with governments, the private sector, and academia. If we want to collaborate productively with these partners, we have to communicate clearly about the innovative process.
“The backbone of innovation is collaboration: To find innovative solutions, we need to bring people and ideas together, often in unexpected ways.”
So one of our first tasks in Rome was to explain how innovation tools work—using plain language. As a thought exercise, the workshop facilitators asked us how we would explain each tool to an adolescent. A moment later, Eilidh and her classmates walked in, and we realized they meant the exercise quite literally.
We split up into diverse teams that included philanthropists, government donors, social entrepreneurs, engineers, designers—and children like Eilidh. Our team volunteered to explain the idea of systems mapping.
As we began to describe what a system is, Eilidh quickly compared it to the way her school works. Using that analogy, the abstract idea of systems maps became much more concrete. We discussed the people who influence her “system”—parents, teachers, principals, and other students. She talked about the issues within the system that she’d like to address—physical activity time, school day length, and the curriculum. And we mapped out her school “system” on a whiteboard, noting how different elements of the school affect each other and where someone would have to start if they wanted to change it.
While the language we use to describe tools like systems mapping can be complex, the ideas were straightforward for Eilidh. For example, she called out the parts of the system that were sensitive to others—more physical education time could mean less English instruction. She noted the parts of the system that were rigid—her International Baccalaureate program is highly structured and puts constraints on the rest of the curriculum.
And she noted the power dynamics between actors. “Parents have power because we’re their kids. The teachers have power because we’re their students,” she said. “But students don’t have much of a say.”
Other experts at the workshop faced the task of crafting adolescent-friendly descriptions of similarly daunting tools—rapid prototyping, design thinking, accelerators, and incubators. Most found that the exercise wasn’t just child’s play. It helped us communicate with each other more clearly—and that’s the first step to collaboration.
When we shared lessons learned, a few actionable ideas rose to the top:
- Break abstract ideas down into actions. It’s often easier to understand a tool if we describe how it works, rather than what it is. We believe innovation is a deliberate practice, so it follows that we should articulate the actions that make up that practice.
- Use concrete examples. Most social innovation tools are forged through experience—iteration, collaboration, and revision. So we shouldn’t hesitate to use specific examples to help bring their value to life.
- Beware of double meanings & assumptions. The terms we use to describe tools can have different meanings to people from different backgrounds. A “system map” can have slightly different qualities to a designer than it does to a social entrepreneur. When collaborating with partners, we shouldn’t assume that everyone embraces the same definition of key ideas.
After the exercise, Eilidh and her classmates went back to school (for their teacher’s sake, we hope none were too inspired to “disrupt systems” right away). But they helped us realize an important lesson: collaboration and clear communication go hand in hand—and we have to be deliberate about both.