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Published on: 19/03/2015

By Deirdre Casella, Carmen da Silva Wells and Patrick Moriarty

Inspired by one of Ella Fitzgerald's early works, this post launches a review of existing literature about approaches to driving whole system change in the effort to achieve sustainable water services for everyone. The work is part of IRC's ongoing effort to ground our practice and deepen our (conceptual) knowledge of such approaches in theory and methods offered by the field of complexity sciences.

To achieve water services that last, for everyone, requires change throughout the water sector. But how? IRC has been undertaking research in the field of complex adaptive systems (CAS), or complexity sciences, to ground our work in the theory and approaches for driving transformative systemic change. A literature review reveals key common properties of whole system approaches to fostering change

Jazz Ensemble as a Complex Adaptive System

In 1939, celebrated jazz musician Ella Fitzgerald and her fellow musicians first recorded 't Ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It). Ella seems to suggest that the means to the end are more important than the end itself. While we would support a more nuanced take on the matter – that the means and the end are of reasonably equal importance - the Queen of Jazz does go on to quote her mother's wise counsel that '[t]his is something you don't learn in school...'. And on that we agree.

Fast forward to 2015: You (select one: private sector, non-profit, community based organisation, charity, authority, provider, government, etc) are minding your own water services business and bump into this somewhat imprecisely defined system commonly called the 'WASH sector'...

With its striking characteristics such as dynamic, multi-level interdependent actor relationships or networks; unpredictable, nonlinear behaviour based on feedback loops; emerging communication networks and subsequent note sagely to yourself: 'Ah ha, what we have here is a classic complex adaptive system'.

Moreover, conducting your daily business within the wider development aid system, you instinctively know how best to influence this "CAS" in order to achieve outcomes that you, your organisation, funders or network of partners have identified as essential to furthering the goals to which you subscribe.

Or, do you? Cue Ella's lyrics softly filtering back from across the years...this is something we did not learn in school!

As tempting as it is to either reduce messy complexity to (merely) complicated, tractable parts of a problem, or alternatively to throw one's hands in the air proclaiming that everything is too complex to be able to make a difference anyway, please do not despair.

The field of complexity sciences offers (lots of!) theory, methods and concepts to make complex problems explicit...for insights into pathways to drive transformational change

The field of complexity sciences offers not only (lots of!) theory, but more importantly methods and concepts to make complex problems explicit, to perceive and analyse the broader dynamic of the complex systems and to aid collective insight into pathways for driving transformational change.

Jumping off from six years of learning about complexity and whole system change while doing it under our multi-country learning initiative called Triple-S-Water Services That Last, IRC is taking time to ground our practice and deepen our (conceptual) knowledge of whole system change approaches. The questions we seek to address include:

  1. How does change arise in complex adaptive systems such as service delivery sectors where people, infrastructure and institutions are constantly, acting, interacting and adapting?
  2. What 'whole system' approaches exist to drive intentional change in 'socio-technical' systems?
  3. What are key common properties of these whole system approaches for fostering intentional change?

One product of our efforts to answer these questions is the draft review of existing literature on whole system approaches to change in socio-technical systems available for download below. As the name implies, socio-technical systems are ones that encompass the intertwined networks of people that act and interact in conjunction with physical networks of 'technical stuff' such as the tools and infrastructure required for delivery of water services.

Such systems are notable for having numerous decision making entities and for being governed by public policy in a multi-scale institutional context in which 'wicked problems' (we did say that we are grounding our practice in academic thinking!) abound. Wicked problems are intractable problems such as climate change or poverty that require changes in mindset and behaviours of a great number of actors, as first described by Rittel and Webber (1973). A critical insight emerging from this review is that 'transformation of whole systems of service provision requires participants to critically reflect on their own behaviour and identify ways in which they and existing processes are contributing to the [system's] problems' (Fam et al, 2013, p.1096). Also, that whole system change approach case studies, without exception, have a critical ingredient – a dedicated driver of change.

Change needs a change agent

A change agent by any other name is a: [select one:] Catalyst, transition manager, change facilitator, hub, social learning platform, learning alliance, collective impact driver, backbone organisation...

So, what's in a name? Actually, naming something is a requisite step to creating a shared language and belief, or logic model. In the case of sector change, examples of a different way of working being introduced and driven by a dedicated hub, or backbone organisation, are available from various services sectors such as education, health, energy and environmental conversation.

Sector Change Process - A dynamic vision-led process towards improved services

In addition to the need for an owner or driver, our review identifies several key shared properties of whole systems approaches to change:

  • a commonly held vision of change among stakeholders that has a broad base of support;
  • dedicated, funded, professional facilitation to guide and curate a high-quality change process;
  • evidence generated from monitoring, policy and action research;
  • collective, or social, learning and decision making about alternative options and pathways to achieving the vision; and
  • timely information feedback and feed-forward loops based on common monitoring systems and (action) research across all levels of the system to keep stakeholders engaged and informed.

In IRC's work, the 'what' we are working towards, is the vision of sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services for everyone. As documented extensively elsewhere, achieving this vision will require a shift away from a project implementation mind-set towards a service delivery approach.

And this in turn requires changes throughout the sector. From policy-making and finance through to implementation. 

A Backbone Organisation facilitates, drives change

The 'how' of fostering and driving this change requires sector actors to develop different ways of acting and interacting and may require new tools, methods and technologies that support these new ways of doing things. Some changes can be reasonably reliably identified in advance and some changes will emerge during the course of things...well,...changing.

Driving, catalysing, supporting, acting as a backbone to that change process is what IRC is all about. And the work we're now doing on whole system change in socio-technical settings – as well as giving us a whole new set of jargon to revel in – is all about getting better at doing so. This literature review has provided us with great insights, as well as given us the confidence of seeing that many other actors in many other sectors are generating exciting movement using a similar set of theories.

We may not have learnt it in school but exploring complexity sciences and approaches to whole systems change can certainly provide insights into 'how we do it...' in the WASH sector as '...that's what gets [lasting] results' (Ella Fitzgerald et al., 1939, refrain 1, line 8).


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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