Part 2 of a 4-part series- What we learnt about systems convenors and why they can help us to reimagine future-fit organisations and governance.
At the beginning of this year, I started a research fellowship with Arantzazulab. Our idea was simple – find examples of where transformation has happened, on the ground, where said transformation was led by communities or used some form of collaborative governance. We wanted to use and share the findings, hoping to work with others interested in creating systems change by working with and through ecosystems.
There is a lot of interesting insight in Part 1 of this series, and we strongly hope that you read that one first. In case you don’t have time, the summary is –
We hypothesise that for transformation to occur, at the scale needed to address the massive challenges associated with climate change, decreasing trust in governments and democracy, deep structural economic disparities, and human inequalities, we need the following –
- New future-fit institutional and governance structures. These will need to maximise local cultures and connect through to planetary level ecosystems.
- New funding mechanisms that move beyond project-based, consultancy-based or membership-based mindsets.
- To learn from systems convenors who are already acting in their local ecosystems to catalyse and amplify knowledge and capabilities, to inform the future-fit design.
- To identify any new roles that we may need to create in the future-fit design.
This future needs to operate at planetary level with deep accountabilities and responsibilities across borders as if we were one world.
This blog post is a deep dive into point number 3.
What do we mean by system convenor?
The first blog highlights that how we conceptualise these entities and the language we use to describe them is as complex as the roles they play. If you have read the first blog, skip to the “Insights from our research – the origin story of what the systems convenor may mean it influences the system differently” heading to get to the new stuff.
When we explored the supporting roles, structures and conditions that were needed in the broader ecosystem, one type of actor was almost uniformly present in transformation endeavours. This actor is playing an organising, convening and co-creation hosting role across different stakeholders (between government, private organisations, organised society and citizens). What we found was this actor, unlike much of the literature suggests, did not simply emerge from a group of people within the existing ecosystem to take on leadership-like duties. Whilst this can and does happen, there is another type of organiser and convenor who is more of an “beneficial intermediary”.
They are an entity (usually formal) who comes into the ecosystem with the specific purpose of working on behalf of the ecosystem and connecting efforts to amplify the impact that each organisation will have in isolation. They are often considered by other participants of the system as ‘neutral’ or ‘independent’.
Some literature calls them systems convenors, others ecosystem builders, space builders, weavers, connectors or network leaders. The more formalised versions, which are slightly different but overall playing quite a similar role, are labs, accelerators, hubs and incubators. People who work in these spaces describe themselves as social innovators, brokers, bridge builders, orchestrators, backbones. Even the space they operate in has many terms. Some examples include the meso (between the macro and micro), the messy middle and the middle ground.
Why do we think systems convening is so interesting for future-fit institutional and governance structures?
We believe there is a lot to be learnt from systems convenors when it comes to imagining and creating new and future fit institutions and governance. In particular, we believe there is a cohort of systems convenors that have been successful in their own ecosystems, and who are currently grappling with the challenges of scaling (and therefore the underpinning institutional, organisational, governance and funding challenges) who are ideal candidates to work together to reimagine the future. In future blogs, we will also be looking at and sharing insights about conditions, mindsets, capabilities, processes that systems convenors need to activate and facilitate these ecosystems.
Insights from our research – some key role(s) and challenges of systems convenors
Whilst the precise words people used differed from place to place, there were three common structural challenges articulated by each person interviewed. The point at which the three structural challenges seemed to be the most disruptive is following success! Where the system convenor had demonstrated that their approaches have started to create change, there is often a desire from others (within the ecosystem or other related ecosystems) to scale the initiative up, spread the initiative wider or disseminate learnings so others can have similar successes. What this often means is the workload for the system convenor grows exponentially. They are seen as a key part of the success, and as being neutral, therefore their approaches are considered transferable to other places and similar challenges. There is also often a desire for them to act as teachers for other parts of the ecosystem. This unfortunately often creates pathways that impact future successes.
The three structural challenges are –
1. Institution design and organisational structure
More work means hiring more people and growing as an entity. In an ecosystem this can have the unwanted effect of concentrating skills and expertise, moving the system convenor into a more centralised role within the ecosystem. Instead of mobilising participants in the system, it creates a dependence on the system convenor. More people in a single entity also means more formal organisational structures and more processes for things like HR, procurement, management etc. These organisational structures, if not carefully designed, inadvertently create default ways of working that can directly inhibit the ability of the system convenor to operate in the ways that made it successful in the first place.
2. Governance and decision making
Interestingly, despite many systems convenors advocating for major structural reform, they have themselves predominantly traditional governance structures. This typically includes a governing board and some kind of advisory or supervisory board. The suitability of the decision making and governance becomes challenged as the systems convenors aim to work with a broader range of stakeholders, especially if this begins to occur in more locations each with their own culture, ambitions and jurisdictional rules. However, there is of course, a balance to be struck. In many cases, in order to be perceived as a trustworthy structure by existing organisations in the system, the systems convenor is expected to have many of these traditional structures in place.
“It’s a dance and you must know the moves on both sides. One is a waltz, and the other is hip hop. Sometimes one leg is waltzing and the other leg is doing hip. But I think it’s a necessary tension, and it’s a brilliant place to innovate. You have to love it though; you can’t just rail against it”
Sustainable sources of funding for these entities becomes difficult the larger they grow. Most funding exists for project-based initiatives where funding is awarded against clearly defined milestones, stage-gates and preidentified outcomes. Since system convenors are often working in the in between spaces, the funding ask is far more difficult to articulate, it is harder to quantify the benefits and therefore funding is less easily attracted from traditional sources. This issue is exacerbated with scaling system convening activities that cross boundaries, sometimes within countries, but especially internationally. This is because it is unclear who or what type of funder should be responsible.
The two other main pathways for funding are to sell the expertise in a consulting-like model or to create a membership model where fees are charged in exchange for being part of the ecosystem (which is then often termed a community). However, both create a path dependency where more success means typically hiring more people. Consulting models are linear – more success leading to more work can only be met by hiring more people to deliver the work. Providing benefits for a membership fee has slightly more scalability if digital services are provided. However, in my experience of working in and with membership-based communities, digital services are not valued highly and do not attract the types of funding that is needed for a systems convenor to be sustainable in the long term.
Insights from our research – the origin story of how and where the systems convenor started, may mean that it influences the system differently
The text below is an excerpt from the paper titled Systems Convening – A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner found here. We have featured this small section from the preface of the book because it elegantly describes the complexity but also the beauty of what systems convenors are and why they matter so much. This paper was a key inspiration in our hypothesis and a core influencer on why we think systems convenors are critical to reimagining the future of institutions and governance.
“Our first intention in this current book was to sharpen our articulation of the role and practice of systems conveners. After carrying out around 40 interviews with people doing this kind of work in very different contexts, often as a team, and under many different roles, we started to focus more on systems convening as an approach. Delving deeper into its nature, we saw that it could even more broadly be adopted as a perspective that allows a person in any role, or taking any approach, to bring certain kinds of questions to their endeavour.
Our focus on it was inspired by people who care to make a difference to challenges with multiple moving parts in socially complex contexts. These kinds of contexts have risen in salience with unfolding events such as the global health crisis brought about by COVID-19, the results of environmental emergencies, or the increase in refugees and people fleeing forced displacements. Our hope is that we are making a contribution to these twenty-first century problems by articulating the kind of work some people have taken on, often in the shadows, to bring about the type of big and small changes that will add up to making a sustainable and transformative difference”.
I would like to humbly add some observations to this work and the work of many others. Most literature seems to fall silent on (or at least does not explicitly address) one element that I think is critical to understand as we try to reimagine the future. The examples given and the descriptions of systems convenors name or infer that the leadership / coordination / convening ‘somehow’ emerges from the participants themselves. The examples found often describe a collection of participants from within the system who have organised, and then (often) formalised into a structure like an association or a not-for-profit. The collectively and iteratively shape what the ecosystem is aiming to achieve. Of course, this absolutely happens, but in our research and our experiences leading up to this paper, there is also another type of system convenor who arises in the system in quite a different way. The second type of systems convenors tend to start as formalised entities that insert themselves into the system as the convenor, co-ordinator or in some cases leader. This means the systems convenor sets a vision and ambitions and asks the ecosystem to rally behind this vision and join in, rather than the vision and mission being co-generated by the ecosystem itself.
In this research, we have focussed predominantly on the second type of system convenor. This is because we see a key opportunity to provide insight into how these may be designed or created in a more effective way. This second type of systems convenors often have the following characteristics –
- They set a strategic plan and direction which it is often on behalf of the ecosystem, not specifically for the organisation.
- Typically funded by public or philanthropic organisations
- They can act as leaders in a traditional sense, however many act more like a secretariat to the ecosystem, providing connectivity, convening, co-creation hosts and project management-like work
- They have a neutral role in the system and are often trusted to balance delicate multistakeholder relationships with and between others in the ecosystem.
- Many struggle to easily articulate themselves or their role, but are often highly sought after by others in the system. When describing their role many downplay their importance in the ecosystem, preferring to be humble (although this is not true in all cases)
- Despite being formal entities, most seem to start with quite organic ways of working, nimble, and responsive to the needs of the ecosystem
- Whilst the marketing material often infers they are complex organisations, in many cases the teams are only a few people holding many moving parts together
- There are many examples where the ecosystem itself has asked for leadership and the systems convenor entity is created to fill that need.
One way to think about this (although the analogy is imperfect) is one is a bottom-up initiated leadership, and the other is a top-down leadership. Another frame for conceptualising this is one approach is more directive and the other more emergent.
It is not the intention to critique the merits of either form of systems convenor. In practice, it is entirely plausible that both types of systems convenors could operate in the same ecosystem. What is important when considering the creation of future-fit intuitions and governance is that where the impetus for transformation originates, and how the vision, and approach are connected to the broader ecosystem, is likely to have an impact on the transformation outcome and how it occurs.
The paper System Innovation on Purpose by Jenny Winhall and Charlie Leadbeater found here illustrates how having a purpose can shape systems change. “A new purpose to guide a system can develop in two quite different ways, one more directive and the other more emergent, exploratory and bottom-up. It’s important to know what kind of approach will work for the challenge and the opportunity you face”.
Based on our research, we would suggest that this type of logic can also be applied to the approaches and therefore the outcomes of the systems convenor itself, which then flows onto the hypothesis about creating future-fit institutions and governance. We believe it’s possible to learn deeper lessons about systems convening if we work to understand whether it came into existence from a bottom-up / emergent process vs a top-down process and whether it is seeking to have a more emergent or directive style of transformation.
Insights from our research – pressures in the existing system push systems convenors away from having future-fit organisational and governance designs
In this blog post, we would like to present two additional hunches, and some early evidence to support them. At this point they are just ideas, so we would be very interested in the views of others or links to any work of others that would help to clarify (or throw out) these hunches.
1. As systems convenors face the challenges of scaling, expanding or spreading, especially those that started with emergent approaches to transformation, there are forces within the existing system that put pressure on the strategies and activities of systems convenors toward more directive and formalised approaches. By way of example, as systems convenors grow there is an increasing need to sustainably fund the activities and the staff members. As mentioned earlier, most funding is geared toward programmes / projects or is attracted by selling expertise in a fee for service arrangement. Both require clearly defined milestones and outcomes from the outset, which is a practice that strongly inhibits emergence. In some cases, these practices can even pressure the system convenor to operate in a way that is counter to why it was successful in the first place. This is not to say that directive approaches are inherently bad, rather, the pressures growing or scaling systems convenors face seem to prohibit them from using emergent practices. Being able to balance between directive and emergent approaches might be part of what is required to move past some of the challenges identified in this research. By extending this line of thinking to the hypothesis: institutional or organisational structures, at scale, that are not designed to be fit-for-transformation reduce the ability to be agile, responsive and emergent.
“There is huge pressure from the donors, imposing how they think the change should occur. My argument is it doesn’t work. If you force the recipients to do something, you will either ruin what they were doing [which is why it was funded in the first place] or they will just take the money and do what they want”.
“The less people you have, the more personal it can be. More people means hierarchy and someone inevitably gets treated like a guru”.
2. The pressure on individual systems convenors to perform consistently against key performance indicators and the overwork of the people within these systems is a key reason why system convenors, or individual transformation examples cannot easily collaborate or connect up. This pressure drives the systems convenor toward a path of least resistance by creating simple actionable activities that are easy to report on, or to run parallel narratives. It also keeps them operating in their own ecosystems because they are focussed on survival.
“The story and narrative behind the inception of this initiative is mythological – nobody knows if it is true. As the initiative progressed, he provided a very simple story that was easy to understand and resonated with everyone. But truthfully, his real motive was deeply anti-colonialist and far more complex. There are many things behind the myth that are not true, but yet as an initiative it is still working”.
“To be honest, I would really love to connect with other system convenors as I do think they could help me solve my challenges. But it’s not direct – you have to rely on serendipity and slowing building connections. Right now, I need money and this is the only place I put my time and attention. The only people I am spending time with is financiers even though I know I would benefit from being engaged with a wider range of people”.
Since our hypothesis is that we need to construct future-fit institutions and collaborative governance approaches, understanding where pressure exists that pushes us away and framing structures that are future-fit-for-purpose must be a critical part of the design.
Our hope is this research piques the interest of systems convenors who would be interesting in working together on our hypothesis, or exploring any of the insights or hunches presented in this blog post.
Arantzazulab is motivated by understanding how and where collaboration, especially around collaborative governance can enhance our global capacity for impact. Where can we learn from each other? Where can we generate knowledge together? When has the Basque region been a pioneer and how can we share that experience with others? What role could we play in establishing international cooperation and experimentation?
We are interested in the appetite of other systems convenors to collaborate on the design of future-fit institution and governance to address planetary problems. We have a strong ethos about taking action, rather than just talking! Therefore, we also want to test the appetite of others to create collaborative experiments which help explore this future.
We ask people who are moved by this idea to reach out and connect with us! You can contact us Michelle, Ione or Naiara at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, please stay tuned for the next blog in the series. In the spirit of working out loud, we have also published most of our working material. You can read the details of the research approach, analyses and more here.
Written by: Michelle Zucker, Naiara Goia and Ione Ardaiz.