Perspective: What does it take to change a complex system?


Perspective: What does it take to change a complex system?

Many of us have experienced successive eras of school improvement efforts, variously focused on governance, curriculum standards, professional practice, the organisation of schooling, and the like.

Each effort has contributed additional knowledge to our understanding of educational systems – and each has fallen short in its ambition to bring about conditions for learning that enable virtually all young people to be successful in life and work. What we know to be true is that the education system is complex and does not work well for all young people. 

What does it take to change a complex system?

If we were tackling a closed system with a finite, knowable number of components that behaved in ways governed by predictable rules and forces, then engaging the brightest minds equipped with the latest science would more than likely get the job done. That’s what we call rocket science.

The search for a vaccine for the coronavirus is one such example. Our understanding of biological systems is fairly advanced, and we have the techniques of scientific research, such as randomised control trials, to assign a degree of confidence to results from experimental trials. Even then, estimates for the time required to develop and deliver a proven vaccine are 12-18 months in the most optimistic scenario.

By comparison, a complex system is open, the number of variables immense, and the operations between and among variables is unpredictable.

Complex systems exhibit three characteristics:

  1. They are unpredictable – this means that we cannot predict the path a system will take.
  2. They generate information – this means that we are constantly having to factor in new information about a system.
  3. They are adaptive – this means that the parts and the system as a whole change their behaviour in response to internal and external factors. It is fair to say that all natural and human systems are complex and always have been.”[1]

Education is a complex system and includes:

  • millions of students with individual interests, motivations, and aptitudes;
  • parents with different expectations and aspirations for their children;
  • educators with diverse backgrounds, professional preparation, rules, and resources;
  • community leaders and members valuing education for their town, city, or state;
  • business leaders and owners seeking talented workers to help grow their business; and,
  • elected officials responding to their constituents and policy recommendations.

It is no wonder that most, if not all, efforts to transform educational systems have produced, at best, incremental improvement.  Our challenge is: “How do we manage and reduce this unpredictability and progress toward solutions that are better than the results gained from business as usual?” 

A Social Lab approach

Over the past thirty years new approaches for tackling complex social challenges, called social labs, have developed that provide the methods and roadmap to design, prototype, and scale solutions that are co-designed and owned by the very people required for change to happen. The Social Lab method has evolved over twenty years and been applied to global challenges that exist within complex systems including food sustainability, homelessness, and childhood malnutrition. 

Social Labs are platforms for addressing complex social challenges that have three core characteristics: they are social, experimental, systemic. To tackle social challenges, the setting for our laboratory exists in our society, the communities we live, work, and play in. Because the challenges we seek to address are complex, what any single one of us can bring to the task, while essential, is not sufficient to represent the entirety of the system; and engagement with others in our society requires informed consent, mutual accountability, and the promise of mutual benefit.

The Social Lab is a lever of change operating within the context of the larger system. The way we advance learning and translate that learning into action is through trial and error and experimentation in a well-designed setting with disciplined practices, the laboratory. To improve educational outcomes for all young people, the Social Lab provides a common table for diverse participants experiencing all facets of the system to add their perspectives and ideas to test out new solutions and determine what works.

In this way, social labs are like a fractal, a concept where the design elements are repeated at increasing scale (think about a cauliflower – break off a stem and it looks like a smaller version of the original cauliflower).  To design a system of self-directed learners pursuing learning journeys, our process for arriving at the design of the learning journey must be the result of our collective learning journey involving all those with a stake in the successful outcome.

Preconditions for a Social Lab

The purpose and design of a Social Lab is where the social lab itself is part of the solutions that provide new organization of the system producing desired results. A Social Lab, by design should do the following.

Generate information through rapid prototyping

In preparing to launch a social lab, the more information we can generate about the education system, its variables, operations, and performance outcomes, the better able we are to increase our confidence in designs that predict desired outcomes.  The more, and more quickly, we can innovate and try out different solutions to determine their effect on the outcomes, the more quickly we learn about what works and what does not work. 

The way to generate more information more quickly is to involve an ever-widening circle of participants from an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders engaged in rapid prototyping for which they are ultimately accountable.

One of the founders of the social labs practice, Zaid Hassan, takes a similar approach to defining social labs, themselves being the solution – or a least a good start toward arriving at solutions. In a recent blog post he writes, “what does it mean to operate strategically in complexity?”. He then details three ideas for taking action in complex systems: “(1) Don’t plan, prototype (2) The team is the innovation & (3) Pay attention to multiple levels.”  By multiple levels he means that of the individual learner, their parents or guardians, the educators, the schools, the communities.

What we know about learning is that it requires constant practice informed by disciplinary subject matter knowledge and evidence. This means that learning how to be effective in a complex system requires continuous practice – and that requires spending time in the world practicing. The practice field is prototyping, and it is through prototyping that we learn what it takes to bring about the innovative solutions that address the challenge statement. 

Tackle complexity collectively

Complexity is best made sense of collectively.

“Making sense of systems characterised by complexity is incredibly difficult, probably impossible, to do alone. There is too much going on, too quickly, for any one person to grasp. As individuals, grasping one limited perspective is probably the best we can do. It’s not as if this perspective isn’t valuable, it’s simply that multiple perspectives are better than one.”[1]

 Once assembled, the stakeholders who collectively bring multiple perspectives are then able to identify and consider the solutions we seek that are inherently found in the experience of and with the system.  For example, a young person who has not met the standard to move on to university is an expert on their experience gained from the system that resulted in that outcome.


Risk taking, shared stake and accountability

To engage in a social lab requires self-awareness of our pre-existing and often unconscious biases that stand in our way; an understanding of, and willingness to take risk to try new things; and a shared stake in the outcome of that risk that results in real accountability for the outcomes. Referencing again, Zaid Hassan[1]:

  • Risk Taking. “Innovation is risky and difficult work. It requires an inner constitution capable of grappling with the very real experience of being wrong. It requires starting from the premise that your first guesses as to what constitutes a good idea is almost certainly wrong. What is needed is an ability to launch something, fail, redesign, relaunch, fail a little better, redesign and so on in repeated iterations.”
  • Shared Stake. “In practice what this means is that when our strategies and experiments fail, they do not impact us. We are insulated from the consequences of our actions. Those who suffer are people subjected to our objectivity. In other words, we are taught to minimise risk to ourselves and instead have skin-in-someone-else’s-game. It is, comparatively speaking, much easier to give someone else advice, to tell someone else to give up smoking as opposed to giving it up ourselves.”
  • “If we genuinely believe in our own ideas, we have to stand by them. Having skin-in-the-game means living in the houses we build; it means being accountable. We are a part of the systems we’re seeking to change. We share in the risk and the rewards of trying to change things.” 

These conditions are, perhaps, the most difficult attain, but the most important to instil in the practice of a social lab. Moving beyond business as usual demands innovation, and innovation will be beset with failures. As any entrepreneur knows, one must fail fast – a key to the design of the social lab’s sprint cycles. Moving to inclusive ownership, especially for those marginalised by the current system, requires having a shared stake in the success or failure of the work. And establishing conditions for joint accountability ensures everyone is on equal footing. 

[1] Zaid Hassan.  The University of Full Catastrophe Learning.  Ecoversities.  May 4, 2020



Terry Mazany is an Educator & Philanthropist in the United States