What is systemic change?

Charles Henderson
Western Michigan University
Charles Henderson
published Mar 9, 2017

"Systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results that they are achieving right now."1 Higher education organizations are complex systems with many interacting subsystems. In order to create sustainable change, it is necessary to understand and align these subsystems. Subsystems include the faculty reward system, the higher education funding system that is based on student enrollment, the organization of universities into academic departments, the tradition of faculty autonomy over instruction, the metrics used to judge student performance (grades vs. learning), etc. Many change initiatives fail because they focus on only one subsystem without considering how this subsystem interacts with other subsystems. For example, in STEM it is common for education reformers to work to convince individual instructors about the benefits of active learning (that is, to change the instructor-student-instructional method subsystem). Research suggests that many instructors are receptive to this message and are interested in using more active learning strategies. However, using more active learning strategies often conflicts with other aspects of the institutional setting, such as institutions using weak methods to measure teaching quality (that is, there are no changes in the instructor-institution-measure of job performance subsystem). These sorts of conflicts significantly limit the depth and sustainability of changes.

The implications of this systems view for change initiatives are that: 1) There is no "one size fits all" change strategy. change strategies need to be thoughtfully designed to fit with the local systems that they are seeking to influence. 2) Understanding the relevant local systems requires having people with relevant perspectives involved in the change initiative.

The Broncos FIRST institutional transformation initiative at Western Michigan University is an example of a systems-based change initiative. With funding from the US Department of Education, we developed a change initiative based on complexity leadership theory. Complexity leadership theory combines ideas from complexity science and systems thinking to help organizations better understand how to create organizational conditions that are likely to lead to productive changes.

A key feature of complexity leadership theory is that productive new ideas emerge when people with diverse knowledge and perspectives interact around a shared problem. In Broncos FIRST, that shared problem is how to change WMU to improve student persistence. A common characteristic of change strategies based on complexity leadership theory is the alignment of working groups (and, later, the entire organization) around a simple message. In this project our starting point for a simple message was "All students admitted to WMU are capable of obtaining a college degree." Project ideas and outcomes can be judged against this simple message. Consistent with complexity leadership, once productive new ideas are created, the institution needs to put these new ideas into the core of the institutional culture and structure, i.e., the institution needs to learn and grow.

In this project, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were the main structure for enacting change through the complexity leadership model. Each PLC group (2 new learning communities per year, each with approximately 8 faculty/staff and 16 students) studies issues of student persistence and develops subgroups focused on particular projects. The goal of each project is to make a change in some aspect of WMU to support student persistence and to measure the result of that change. There are substantial efforts (led by two postdoctoral research associates) to coordinate results of the PLC projects, by developing a portfolio of what the PLC projects have learned, publicizing it, and making direct connections between PLC projects and places on campus where the ideas can be institutionalized. This combination of attempting to fully understand existing systems while at the same time changing them is one powerful approach to systemic change.


1. Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. Chelsea Green Publishing. (p. 138)

Suggested Citation: Henderson, C. (March 9, 2017). What is systemic change? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/posts/sytemic_change.html.

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