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2024 IDEAS Insights: #2 - Effective IDEAS leaders are systems illuminators

An all too common and fair critique of many organizational efforts to advance IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Social Justice) is that they do not address systemic or structural issues. Catalyst 2030 defines systems change as ‘addressing the causes, rather than the symptoms, of a societal issue.’ It’s one thing to build a more inclusive workplace culture and another one entirely to shift the broader conditions of how an organization, community, or ‘system’ operates. Both are necessary and related, but there are important distinctions for social change leaders to navigate. 

At its best, IDEAS work operates at every level of a system. It is the job of IDEAS practitioners and leaders to make each component of those systems explicit so that others can identify, acknowledge, understand, and address them. FSG’s report, ‘Waters of Systems Change,’ has been an invaluable resource to do just that. 

As noted in FSG’s Six Conditions of Systems Change (model below), there are both distinct components of systems change work, each characterized by their placement on a continuum from explicit to implicit.

This continuum is important because it speaks to the fact that not all aspects of a system are necessarily visible. Depending on our own life experiences, identities, and positionality, we may be more or less equipped to see and understand each component part and their relationship(s) to one another. As FSG importantly points out, ‘shifts in systems conditions are more likely to be sustained when working at all three levels of change: explicit, semi-explicit, implicit.’ 

I believe that this insight is part of the reason why many well-intentioned IDEAS efforts are labeled as performative. Too often, IDEAS initiatives are deployed as one-offs or operate in isolation, thereby only addressing one or maybe two of the system conditions in FSG’s model. For example, volunteer-led DEI Councils may be valuable for creating stronger relationships for its members, but without leadership buy-in (and ideally participation), a clear operational mandate, or budget, it is unlikely that such a council can effectively shift these other conditions for systems change. A single unconscious bias training may support awareness raising and shifts in mental models, but education alone cannot change policies or resource flows. Policies created in a vacuum may be implemented but will likely face resistance and subversion (or simply lead to further distrust of those enacting said policy). As such, IDEAS leaders must design comprehensive strategies that, taken together, operate across these six conditions and at all three levels of structural, relational, and transformative change. 

At a time when DEI/IDEAS work is under increased national scrutiny and central to many political debates, I invite our field to consider the ways that our current work (education, coaching, assessments, strategy building, program and policy design, etc.) can take on a systems change lens. By becoming students of systems change and using these frameworks to better understand our organizations, industries, stakeholder relationships, and governance structures, we become that much more effective in our work.

Because of its scale and complexity, systems change work can feel daunting, both for us as IDEAS practitioners and for our colleagues and clients organizations who operate within these systems. But even individual leaders and small organizations (like ours) have meaningful roles to play in system change work. And if you’re finding yourself stuck, or in need of support, that IDEAS Generation team and I are here to help!

- Dan Egol (He/Him), Executive Director

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