Systems change! Just saying the words aloud makes me feel like one of the cognoscenti, one of the elite who has transcended the ways of old-school philanthropy. Those two words capture our aspirations of lasting impact at scale: systems are big, and if you manage to change them, they’ll keep spinning out impact forever. Why would you want to do anything else?

There’s a problem, though. “Systems analysis” is an elegant and useful way to think about problems and get ideas for solutions, but “systems change” is accelerating toward buzzword purgatory. It’s so sexy that everyone wants to use it for everything. And even if it’s becoming one those phrases that means whatever the user wants it to mean, funders are calling for it, so the doers have to scramble to look like they’re doing it.

It doesn’t help that there are likely no two words in the English language with a broader definition than “system” and “change.” Once there is too much divergence on the meaning of a phrase, it ceases to be very useful as a way to drive concerted action. Variants can add richness if they coalesce back into a useful definition, but more commonly they create confusion: once the multiple-definitions horse is out of the barn, it rarely comes back. See “impact investing.”

But when you rummage through the growing literature on systems change thinking, there are in fact a few recurring themes. One is the need to tackle the root causes of any problem you take on. Another is that a broad coalition must be assembled ASAP. Finally, the most salient theme is the notion that the systems involved are transformed as a result of the work (although in many of the examples I read about, it’s not articulated clearly just what system is being changed).

Taken individually or as a whole, these themes point to some of the ways in which systems change is a less-than-ideal paradigm for the work we need to get done:

  1. It’s too hard to know to what degree systems change is or isn’t happening.
  2. “Root cause” thinking can—paradoxically—bog down progress.
  3. Systems change orchestration is fraught, at best.
  4. Mostly we’re using a system, not changing it.
Scalable Solutions

So is there a better way? Sure! Call it “Scalable Solutions.” The phrase makes cameo appearances in discussions of systems change, but it actually represents a fundamentally different approach, and it’s worth taking that difference seriously. Scaling is more than when you add two more clinics to the one you have now; that’s just “growing.” If a “scalable solution” is one that has the potential to make a big dent in a big problem, then “scale” is the distant dream of that solution achieving its full potential, and the solution is “scaling” when the curve of impact over time steepens dramatically, even exponentially, in a sustained way.

Read the full article about systems change by Kevin Starr at Stanford Social Innovation Review.