Book Review: The Systems Work of Social Change

February 9, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Following on yesterday’s post on a new guide to Systems Thinking and Practice, this was the last and most interesting of my Christmas break catch-up reads. It also had the longest title. In full: ‘The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change’. (I think the punctuation is wrong, but as this is OUP, maybe it’s an Oxford comma).

Cynthia Rayner and Francois Bonnici, both based in South Africa, pull together a wealth of great case studies from around the world and pull out of them some very practical answers for that super-tricky question ‘so the world is complex, what do we do differently?’ The audience is ‘our industry of social change’, which they estimate at 10 million NGOs, contributing an average 4.5% of global GDP and employing 7.4% of the world’s workforce. Blimey. That industry includes conventional NGOs, and the new waves of social entrepreneurs and philanthropic foundations (Bonnici has played a big role in these).

Given their origins, it matters that they have written this as a critique of ‘the industrial approach to social change’, which they claim has taken over that industry in recent years – plans, indicators, ‘service providers’, linearity and all the rest. They call for a rethink to fit a world of messy, constantly shifting complex systems and ‘wicked problems’.

Their starting point:

‘Complexity presents us with the realization that our world is essentially unknowable… The implications of this are profound. Confronted with ‘unknowability’, we can choose different approaches. We can build models that incorporate complexity to the finest degree possible, narrowing our risk of uncertainty to rare instances and outliers. Many complexity theorists are following this path, working to ‘decomplexify complexity’…

Alternatively, we can acknowledge that complexity means we are fallible. Complexity is an acknowledgement, a sort of surrender. Even when informed by the most intentional and diverse of groups, with the most robust data, our understanding of reality is inherently reduced, even tainted, by our perception.’

Their book argues for both/and, but concentrates on how to navigate intentionally through the fog. Some examples:

  • Start with the Process in mind, not the outcome, fostering connections and building/reconfiguring power
  • Lots of practical advice on the more intangible end of social change – shifting norms, creating safe spaces where collective identity and action can brew, slowing down, letting go of control (if you’re in a position of power), including not intervening when people make mistakes, so they can learn from them.
  • The mutually reinforcing effort to disrupt politics and norms – creating a wedge in one allows change makers to start disrupting the other and vice versa. Nice examples from India and Colombia here.

For a progressive aid wonk, there’s lots of standard fare – localization/decentralization, participation, collaboration, building trust and relationships etc, but the examples and the links to systems thinking often cast new light on familiar topics.

The pedagogy is excellent – lots of clear definitions, and each chapter ends with a one page summary, with the focus on top tips – perfect for my students.

The most useful bit of the book is probably the last – a good strong ‘so whats’ section on ‘reimagining the future’, with excellent chapters on systems-compatible measurement for learning; funding for partnership and a broader concluding ‘Principles and Practices in Action’.

When a book is this rich, it’s actually very hard to review. An overview can make it sound very bland, and there are too many good bits to summarize in a blog. Much better to take a look for yourself – buy it, or if you have the right institutional affiliation, you might be able to read it online through Open Access.

February 9, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Great to see your review of this excellent book Duncan. I also featured it in my monthly updates in 2021 – and my full notes are here

    As well as the book, I’d strongly recommend other work from the Collective Change Lab (where Cynthia Rayner is based, with a focus on systems and storytelling), which has been very inspiring for me over the last 18 months and informs my current explorations around embracing complexity, nurturing relationships and catalyzing collaborative learning for social change.

    John Kania and team (including Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda, Cynthia Rayner and more) have put out a series of excellent blogposts, podcasts and webinars over the last year, including “the relational work of systems change” which was the most popular Stanford Social Innovation Review piece of 2022.

    I’ve got a stash of most of these resources, and notes from many of them. Happy to share with anyone who’s interested. Oh, and there’s a another good review of the book from the Daily Maverick, in South Africa

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  2. I intend to buy it and read. However, I don’t agree with your concluding comment that the book is so rich to get reviewed. I guess since as you noted that the book is full trendy catchphrases to which you have your own inclination, you opted to agree with most. Just a thought. I am a regular reader of your blog and my expectation from you is to get a your personal insight on any issue, book, event, trend, etc.

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      Thanks Shahed, yes guess I am guilty of liking it because I see a lot of echoes with my own work. Is that a bad thing? Probably doesn’t make for a very rigorous review!

  3. Thanks for this review Duncan. I read this book last year and also found it useful, particularly the principles and connected practices. That said, I had questions about the extent to which the authors (after the first chapter) and featured organizations were fully taking on a systems approach versus just working more effectively to address the symptoms of systemic challenges. Maybe that’s the right approach, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected after the first couple of (very good) chapters. More on these points in my own review here:

  4. Unless Alan Hudson will lend me his, I am going to treat myself to a copy as I am intrigued about: (i) the balance between process and outcomes (surely both are important and can be mutually re-enforcing?), and (ii) how much of this is a real systems approach to working on inter-related causes, rather than just manifestations of systemic problems. Thanks for the review Duncan.

  5. Great book. I really appreciated the profiling of organisations that have done the ‘deep, relational work’, especially because you won’t find any of them listed on ‘effective’ charity rating websites 🙂 They say a good book catches on if the timing is right. My hope is that the world post-pandemic has become more aware of the importance of core human values like dignity, belonging, love, and empathy. So although the arguments of the book aren’t new, I think maybe we’re now slightly better placed to give them the attention they deserve.

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