Whole Systems Change is not a Rubik’s Cube

If you are inside the social innovation world you know everybody’s talking about whole systems change,

If you are not, get ready. It’s bound to seep into more and more public discussions.

That’s a good thing as long as we can keep it from getting complicated.

Whole systems change is really a way of thinking. It advises that there are many more variables that affect the resolution of tough social challenges than we realize.  Further that most of these variables are invisible, silent and indeed, unknowable. In other words, change is complex.

Notice, for example, the link between  poverty, addiction, homelessness, malnutrition and social isolation. Then consider the price of oil’s effect on  the price of food and consumerism’s relationship to addiction.


It’s hard to know where to start.

That’s another good thing. Nothing like a little humility to help us pause, re-think and re-imagine.

The expectation with whole systems thinking is that most of us will keep doing what we are already doing. Except we will pay more attention to what is going on around us and see how we might align efforts. I describe this as thinking and acting like a movement.

But here’s the thing.

Some people are approaching whole systems change the way they would a Rubik’s cube. That it is a complicated intellectual puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery to be explored.

These people think they can defy infinity and grasp every single variable if they keep at it long enough.

That’s dangerous for the following reasons:

1) Whole systems thinking becomes an intellectual pursuit rather than a tool of analysis and cooperation

2) The language becomes more and more esoteric separating people rather than bringing them together

3) It is diversionary, consuming time better spent  exploring the insights offered by whole systems thinking

4) It leaves the impression only whole systems change experts can be change-makers

5) It suggests change can be controlled.

CS ‘Buzz’ Holling is one of the parents of Panarchy, a whole system way of thinking about resilience in nature. Panarchy has provided an abundance of practical insights for Vickie and my work. Holling once told me: “The best you can hope for from whole systems thinking is to isolate 5 or 6 variables. And then get on with it”

So let’s put away our Rubik’s cubes, put on our whole system glasses and pick up our surfboards. Surfing like change-making is an act of vigilance and observation.


The only way to approach such a period – where uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds – is not to predict, but to act inventively and exuberantly in diverse, adventures in living and experiment.

    Buzz Holling

Why Do You have to go and Make Things So Complicated?

     By Avril Lavigne. Listen here. Buy here.


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  1. Linda Perry

    Thanks for this Al. I think for so long we’ve treated systems change like baking a cake. Add some well known ingredients, follow a process and there’s the cake. When it really is much more about the adage “we make the path by walking” and I would add imagining, talking and including….

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