Work Smarter, Not Harder

Change the game with Systems Practice

March 20, 2017

An interview with Rob Ricigliano

Before he was the Systems and Complexity Coach at The Omidyar Group. Rob Ricigliano brokered peace in some the world’s most complex geographies. Rob has worked on issues ranging from the apartheid transition in South Africa to the peace process in Colombia and post-conflict mediation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through those experiences, Rob realized that peace required change-makers to think about an entire ecosystem as a whole, rather than just individual interventions in isolation, which often caused more harm than good.

Today, Rob sees many social entrepreneurs facing the same issues. While we are all in the business of changing the world, our efforts don’t always lead to success. Someone can invent the most amazing water filtration device or solar lantern, but the resulting social impact and financial returns will be limited if they fail to account for how such innovations plug into the broader landscape.

Rob helps social innovators inside and outside The Omidyar Group work smarter by finding strategic leverage points to shift entire systems by getting more impact out of their efforts. It’s called “systems practice”, an approach we’re working to implement at Acumen, and the topic of our new free course on systems practice.

+Acumen course designer Amy Ahearn sat down with Rob, the systems practice expert and instructor for this course, and talked about why he thinks systems practice is so powerful and how it’s a game-changer for all forward-thinking, socially minded leaders.

Amy Ahearn: You’re the “Systems and Complexity Coach” for The Omidyar Group. That’s a pretty interesting title. Can you describe what you do at The Omidyar Group?

Rob Ricigliano: The Omidyar Group is a family of initiatives and organizations that represent the philanthropic, personal and professional interests of Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Their goals for social change have resulted in really interesting programs that deal with everything from human trafficking to peacebuilding to financial inclusion and education. I help these teams use systems and complexity tools to expand the breadth and depth of their impact. I work with them in a practical way to understand the complex systems in which they operate. We identify leverage points where they can create outsized impact and build strategies that capitalize upon those leverage points.

Amy: Can you give a few examples of the types of teams and issues you’ve worked on?

Rob: I worked with a team at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm that is one of several organizations in the The Omidyar Group, to help them better understand how to develop their strategy around investing in improvements to education in the United States. We’ve also worked with teams at Democracy Fund in Washington D.C. that are trying to understand the dynamics of Congress and teams at Humanity United working on issues of human rights in Nepal and Qatar.

Amy: That’s an incredible range of important issues. You used the term “systems and complexity tools.” I’ve also heard many people use the term “systems thinking” recently. Can you break down what you mean by “systems thinking” or “systems practice”?

Rob: Systems thinking can mean many things to many people. At The Omidyar Group, we’ve begun to capture and catalyze a new kind of approach to tackling complex problems that we call systems practice. We see this as having three key components: first, systems practice is a mindset or a way of thinking how you can work within our messy world to promote certain outcomes. These outcomes could be anything from more peace to more justice to more prosperity. Second, systems practice is also a set of tools. We want to give people very operational ways to conduct analysis and develop strategy. Third, systems practice implies very particular kinds of processes to foster collective intelligence, collective sense-making and ultimately collective action. These are participatory processes that enable people to have difficult conversations, share perspectives, and challenge each other’s thinking to arrive at an integrated understanding of a social problem and how it can be addressed.

Amy: That’s really helpful framing. So when you’re working with teams at The Omidyar Group, why do you tell them that it’s important to think about applying a systems practice approach to their work?

Rob: A lot of times people will think they don’t have the time to do this. Systems practice can involve a lot of time and effort to build shared understandings of complex problems. That’s where I think you have to consider the common pitfalls that people will fall into when they try to use more linear or traditional approaches to projects and initiatives. We have a tendency to want to oversimplify these very complex environments. So it’s like a horse putting blinders on and saying: “I know there are political issues and there is conflict and there is justice and there is trauma, but I just deal with early childhood education, so I don’t want to know about all this other stuff. I just want to know how to do an early childhood education project really, really well.”

I understand that instinct, but it actually can keep us from achieving better outcomes.  Even if that early childhood program gets implemented, it doesn’t get us to the overall goal that we want whether that is a more peaceful society or higher quality of life.

Amy: How did you get interested in “systems” in the first place?

Rob: Working in “systems” is not where I started. I started off in law school. I was both very ambitious and idealistic but also quite practical and operational. I went to law school thinking that was going to be the place where I would learn a set of skills that would let me change the world in an idealistic but practical way.

Amy: But it sounds like that didn’t quite happen?

Rob: I was fortunate that I soon came across people working in negotiation and mediation, especially collaborative problem solving. I was captivated by the ability of these mediation processes to actually make the impossible possible. I got involved in international conflict work and arms control and worked on all kinds of really incredible conflict resolution processes. These ranged from working on the transition from apartheid in South Africa to the peace process in Colombia to post-conflict mediation in the Democratic Republic of Congo to post-conflict work in the former Soviet Union and Iraq and Afghanistan. The more I engaged in peace negotiations, the more I realized that it was a very powerful tool. But I also realized it had incredible limitations.

We could do our part really well and help to mediate an agreement, but the larger peacebuilding process still wouldn’t succeed. So leaders might have reached an important agreement, but the peace process didn’t actually produce peace. And that’s what both began to frustrate and fascinate me. I started asking— “If our part works, why doesn’t the larger process work?” And that eventually led me to look at systems and systems practice.

Amy: Fascinating. How did this change your work?

Rob: I started adopting a systems practice approach and began figuring out how to apply it in some of the most amorphous, murky, and difficult-to-handle situations; intractable issues like homelessness or human rights, where lots of great people have spent lots of time working on them, but they still haven’t been solved.

Amy: Do you have one story that stands out about how a systems practice approach led to a transformative breakthrough in your work?

Rob: My conversion moment to the world of systems practice dates back to work I was doing on the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 2000s. The country had recently experienced what commentators were calling “Africa’s Third War.” The fighting had largely ceased, but the negotiations that were supposed to lead to a permanent peace were having difficulty getting off the ground.

I was part of a team that was facilitating back channel dialogues between the two rebel movements and the government. We were trying to help get the peace process on track. But we’d make progress and then a new conflict would break out and the negotiations would go backward. I started to build a simple map of the dynamics in the peace process. Through this process, I saw how what we were doing was actually making the situation worse. We realized that we should shift our tactics from working at the national level to working on local ceasefires. Ultimately, that’s exactly what we did, and it helped to mediate the basis for a ceasefire agreement that was picked up by the official actors that eventually led to one of the rebel groups joining the government of national unity. So, a systems practice approach contributed to ending that phase of conflict in the Congo.

Amy: Wow! I can see why that was a “conversion moment.”

Rob: Yes. The other pitfall that systems practice can help you avoid is the threat of unintended consequences. Sometimes things that seem like they would be good also have negative impact. The classic examples are things like increased levels of homelessness in areas with more homeless shelters, food aid increasing starvation rates because it destroyed local agriculture markets.

Ultimately, systems practice is about harnessing the potential for collective action to create collective impact. Systems practice allows you to integrate different views into a common perspective on social problems and how we should deal with them. When you can envision the whole system, it makes it much easier for people to see their roles and how they can be complementary to each other’s work so that what we’re doing is actually adding up to impact.

For more on the tactics of implementing systems practice in your work check out our free course Systems Practice: An Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact.

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