Part 5 of Mike’s 5-part leadership series
The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s largest and most prestigious universities, and consistently ranks among the top 40 academic institutions in the world. Renowned for its Nobel Prize-winning researchers, its beautiful, sprawling campus, and its diverse, international student population, UBC has pioneered countless research breakthroughs and societal contributions since its founding over a century ago.
On the western edge of campus, in a new and modern LEED certified building, is the ISIS Research Centre. Launched in 2009, its “original vision was that business and business education have significant roles in driving social innovation and active change in a complex global climate characterized by financial, economic, political and environmental instability.”
In other words, ISIS aims to use market forces to transform complex global systems.
It’s a leadership ambition that reflects the ultimate goal of most social entrepreneurs—to transform entrenched systems, making them more sustainable and generative. Indeed, the ultimate measure of social enterprise success is a legacy of enduring, positive change. Whether in local communities, on our shared environment, or in the broad context of international affairs, successful leaders are largely those that manage to embrace new and emerging paradigms, blazing a trail of change in which others will follow.
Systems thinkers identify issues, solve problems, and design and implement processes that serve all stakeholders.
Building on skills of self-leadership, engagement of those around them, a focus on achieving results, and on coalition-building beyond the bounds of their organizations, to successfully transform systems, leaders must be able to manage analytical and conceptual thinking—often at the same time.
Systems transformation is the fifth leadership discipline of successful social venture leaders.
The first of four fundamental activities of effective systems thinkers is looking at the system they aim to shift with a critical eye, and questioning accepted norms of policy, approach or activity. They then draw on the other disciplines of leadership to move themselves, their colleagues, and organizational partners to achieve results.
Active support of innovation is the second characteristic of systems thinkers. I’ve had the pleasure to contribute some time and ideas to one of ISIS Research Centre’s newest programs, the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub—an accelerator for social ventures that brings together “university resources, access to new networks, peer learning, and improved investment readiness.” The Hub supports cohorts of social entrepreneurs working to develop ventures that drive social innovation.
The entrepreneurial energy, risk-tolerant support, and coaching and skills building the Innovation Hub delivers to cohort members are all essential ingredients in the encouragement and support of innovation.
The Innovation Hub is making space for creative, continuous improvement to flourish, and establishing conditions for disruptive change to be possible.
I spoke recently with Joanna Buczkowska, Managing Director at ISIS’s Centre for Sustainability and Social Innovation. She and her colleagues have been working hard to develop the plans for the Innovation Hub, and what struck me was her commitment to complementing—not duplicating—work that’s already being done in the region. While a number of specific examples of complementary organizations, groups and convenings came up, the point is that systems thinkers like Joanna recognize that their work and their organization are just one part of a significant puzzle. And the more complex the issues they aim to address, the more important it is that a community deploys diverse solutions…. Not all of them will work.
As a result, strategic planning with systems thinkers is a formidable process—an approach that monitors the extended environment in which the organization exists for ideas, best practices, and emerging trends that will shape the system. Leaders must nest their own organizations in the far broader context, and have clarity on where their organization can make a contribution, giving due consideration to the work others are doing to move the system and their collective organizations toward the future they all aspire to reach.
Leaders must see their organizations within their broader system context, and identify opportunities to accelerate emergent, progressive trends.
They must also continually scan their environments for ideas, best practices and emerging trends, trying to foresee how those trends will shape the systems they aim to shift. This future orientation is the third characteristic of effective systems transformers. It can also be the most exhausting: Capitalizing on emergent trends—i.e. following the lead of successful, small-scale changes within the system—requires leaders frequently to pivot their work and business or organizational models. The significant energy and support this future orientation requires makes communities of supportive peers profoundly important.
Supportive networks are essential to meaningful systems change.
Most visible among the contributions of systems thinking leaders is their active orchestration of change. Whether within their own organizations, or in collaboration with partners, this final characteristic of systems transformers presents as a championing of the change they seek.
This is precisely why well-designed, scalable convenings are vital in complex contexts. Developing trusting relationships between people, across organizational boundaries, and creating the “safe space” to share progress, findings, and even failures are just two of the reasons why transformative events like the annual Social Venture Institute are continually successful.
Junxion has been a long-standing sponsor of SVI, and I act as one of the Executive Producers, precisely because the community of connections SVI cultivates is an essential aspect of systems transformation. The 150 or so “thoughtful and committed citizens” that convene each year for SVI comprise a community of changemakers that is now interwoven through countless organizations.
Alumni draw on one another for support in myriad ways, and collectively are shaping some of the most promising social ventures in our region. And any one of those organizations might be the one to solve the riddle of systems transformation, conserving environments, supporting communities, or shifting norms sufficiently to catalyze progress.
Catch up on the rest of Mike’s Leadership Series:
Mike Rowlands leads Junxion Strategy’s Vancouver office and is well known as the “CEO Whisperer.” Specialising in TrustBrand development for social ventures, and outreach and engagement for responsible businesses, Mike works to accelerate the potential of social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.