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  • Writer's pictureEmma Iovoli

What exactly is systems change, and how can it help life science businesses?

Now that the first week of the Health Systems Transformation Basecamp at the School of Systems Change has drawn to a close, it seems like a good moment to reflect on what systems change actually is, and why it is useful to life science businesses.

When I first started work at GSK, I sat next to one of the cool and trendy Marketing Directors who had a t-shirt with the slogan “Change Agent”. I remember thinking – “that’s awesome, to change something, I wonder if I could do that?” I imagined a pioneering maverick, a heroic character, that courageously went out there and made a real difference to the world.

What I did not appreciate was that we are all “change agents” - because changing things is a very natural part of life. It is part of growing up, forging relationships, learning and contributing to society through our work. We are living systems that are constantly changing ourselves and the world around us, either intentionally or unintentionally. The first question, then, is how we get more intentional about this unavoidable change. That’s where the practice of systems change can help.

“A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.”

Meadows 2009

Another way of looking at it is to recognise that almost every large pharmaceutical company has been through a huge raft of organisational changes in the last 12 to 24 months somewhere in the world. No matter how many strategic consultants we hire, the external environment is changing so fast that business models of today are no longer fit for tomorrow.

Systems change helps us to detect and prepare for these patterns of change that are coming our way, a little bit like weather forecasting. It helps us take the right actions at the right moment in time. This saves the business money in the long run, making sure it is resilient to cope with the storms that lie ahead.

“The purpose of a system is what it does. There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.” 

Anthony Stafford Beer.

When a life science business is struggling – maybe pipelines have failed or employee retention is low, or sustainable business models seem impossible, or tenders and sales are being consistently lost - it is tempting to say that the system is “broken”. But one of the things we learn early on at Basecamp is that systems are not broken. They are perfectly designed to do the things that they are designed to do.

Rather than trying to fix what is broken, we begin to realise that something about the way the system is structured or organised, and something about its ultimate purpose and goal, needs to shift and change in order for the business to thrive and survive.

At this point we are almost certainly dealing with complexity - complex processes, complex relationships and complex structures. This is when the tools and processes of systems change can help us to diagnose and locate where in the complex system we need to intervene in order to shift the patterns of structures and relationships towards better outcomes.

In summary, systems change is the intentional practice and process of reshaping complex patterns and structures within businesses to anticipate and even dance with the external forces of change to improve outcomes.


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­This was a very short overview of systems change! If systems change is something you are curious about for you, your medical team or your purpose-driven business, please do get in touch for a conversation. I also encourage you to reach out to the School of Systems Change to find out more.

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