Communication and systems change


There are a million ways to tell a story—to send signals that indicate which way to go forward (and why). Today’s post is a collaboration with Lex Schroeder, who writes: “Having come up in the systems thinking and Art of Hosting communities, and having spent a great deal of time learning participatory leadership methods, I tell stories that reflect back a group’s learning. Without speaking for individuals or for the group as a whole, I try to catch the group’s collective intelligence and make visible new insights.”

After working with us on a few shared change projects this year, Lex joined us to co-write this piece on a systems change approach to communications and why it matters. Thanks, Lex!— T&T

Communications work is a vital piece of any change process, but systemic change requires an even more keen eye to communications since it involves multiple stakeholders and a high degree of complexity.

There are a few key ways in which Systems Change communications strategies can vary from traditional communications strategies:

1. Many stakeholders, voices, audiences

In this type of change work, the ideas for what, when, how, and who to communicate originate from a collaborative team of people rather than any one individual or organization. Messages must reflect the thinking of an entire group and speak to multiple audiences and therefore may be more challenging to develop. Team members may need to go through several iterations of a document until the group reaches collective agreement on how to move forward. Different approaches or messages are often needed for different stakeholder groups.

2. Writers as listeners

Writers do not craft messages so much as refine and reflect them back to the full group. Writers rightly use their communications knowledge to translate complex ideas and guide the group toward smart messages, but otherwise do not insert their own voice or opinions into the work. Writers offer strategic advice and work to give words and ideas coherence, but do not focus on driving new ideas or coming up with new, more impactful language. The writer’s role is often more supportive than creative. The writer’s first job is to listen. 

3. Precise language

Similarly, as writers listen, they have a responsibility to craft messages that echo back to the team what they have individually and collectively said, using team members’ own words as much as possible. This helps the collaborative team take ownership of the work to be done while becoming ambassadors for the message. 

4. Writers as translators

In systems change work, we’re typically trying to do things that are inherently counterintuitive to the existing system, which means communications materials need to introduce new ideas in a way that they can be easily absorbed. Writers play a critical role by translating key ideas and methodologies for those who don’t have the same systems change subject matter expertise. Communication materials should make new ideas more accessible and open up minds and hearts in order to minimize resistance to change. Ideally, they should function as learning tools which team members can revisit to remind themselves of what they are doing and find concrete examples of what systems change looks like on the ground. 

5. Strong editorial process

Complex and highly collaborative multi-stakeholder projects require simple structures to support the work and ensure effective and timely delivery. As communications teams develop articles and other materials, it is helpful to be specific about who the author, owner/editor, and readers of each document will be. The owner is responsible for bringing the document to its final state by a clear target date. Having a strong editorial process with clear roles and responsibilities helps teams capture the myriad of opinions and perspectives to be navigated while also meeting project timelines.

For all of these reasons, the communications function in systems change work is highly adaptive, responsive, and iterative... and often, much more visual than your average report. As change work rapidly unfolds, supporting communications work must rapidly change with it. In our communities and organizations, we are learning how to listen so much more effectively. Communications experts in the systems change community can help lead the way in modeling what this looks like on paper while helping to facilitate change.