How to create global system change

for a more sustainable and equitable world

The Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management has an article by Waddock, Meszoely , Waddell  and Dentoni on The complexity of wicked problems in large scale change, which develops a framework that brings together complexity and wicked problems theories to understand how individual organizations and change agents can better achieve large system change (LSC). The framework is illustrated using the Sustainable Energy for All initiative. This post provides a non-linear, interpretive summary (concept map with explanatory notes) of the 22-page article, followed by a short discussion of how the systems approach could be used as a co-evolution and emergence action framework.

Organizational change        To survive and profit, business organizations must adapt to market conditions. Since its first application to business just after World War II, management science has gone through three cycles: (1) from 1945 to 1975 organizational change mainly dealt with process augmentation to cut (internal) costs; (2) in a second 30-year cycle (1975-2005) it was mostly focused on flexibility & agility to benefit from new business opportunities; and (3) from 2005 onward, it developed a concern for planetary exigencies to address externalities (the triple bottom line of PPP was coined in 1996, but it took a decade to have some impact).

large system change

Large system change       To really achieve notable effects on planetary concerns, business responses must contribute to large system change (LSC) initiatives at a global scale. Such LSC must be able to deal effectively with complex adaptive systems that are fraught with wicked problems. Complex adaptive systems have been discussed in an earlier post on Complexity thinking for aid effectiveness (scroll down to the diagram with dynamic interaction, adaptation, co-evolution and emergence). Wicked problems have been dealt with in several other posts. Clearly, LSC must involve large geographies and must be aimed at reforming multiple organizations and institutions working conjointly, which in turn needs network transformation for sustainability. In systems thinking the focus is on networks and patterns, because only then it is possible to approach a system as a ‘whole’.

Sustainable Energy for All (SEA)       … is a UN initiative that brings all sectors of society to the table – business, governments, investors, community groups and academia – with 3 inter-linked objectives: (1) ensure universal access to modern energy services; (2) double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and (3) double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. It will involve multi-continental organizations that work together in a global network. It must be recognized that such an initiative will face wicked and complexity issues of enormous magnitude and unpredictability. For this reason it must create a continuous learning system.

Co-evolution and emergence action framework        Learning is one of the aspects that have to be dealt with by the SEA initiative, the other ones being dynamics, complexity, prototyping and visioning. Waddock et al. (2015) propose the creation of a ‘ Co-evolution and emergence action framework’ to ensure that these inter-related aspects are dealt with effectively. It is absolutely necessary that all partners participate in the development of shared visions in order to strive for a common purpose. A vision is not a blueprint. It only serves to guide a process of adaptive change. All the caveats with regard to wicked problems and complexity theory apply.

A fundamental learning problem         There is one major problem with all this: it requires a profound change in the way participants understand systemic solutions to complex, wicked problems. Until now, almost everybody’s basic mode of problem solving is analytical, which means that things are taken apart (conceptually), analysed, and put back together again, without using techniques, theory, approaches and methodologies that look at ´systems as a whole.´ As a result, ‘whole system’ issues are not addressed. This is not to say that people do not have some level of systemic sensibility, but hardly anyone has any experience or knowledge of how to think systemically in the full systemic sense of the word. As a result the vast majority of people (and decision-makers!) are not just incapable of systemic problem solving, but actually resist it, consciously or unconsciously. This begs the question of systems learning.

Wicked Solutions        …. is a workbook for systems learners, i.e. planners or students who may have heard of systems thinking or the systems approach, but have no clue where to start. Wicked Solutions is based on the systems approach and is primarily intended to learn how to address wicked problems. It can also handle complex adaptive systems, since they share many characteristics with wicked problems (see Table 2 in Waddock et al., 2015). The work book has three levels. At the third and final level, the learner will be asked to do some very serious systems thinking, indeed. A fully worked case in combination with the stepwise approach get him or her going straightaway. The main steps ask the systems learner to: (1) map inter-relationships & perspectives; (2) frame the stakes of key stakeholders to align interests at a conceptual level; (3) critique and deliberate boundaries; and (4) develop stakeholding to align interests at a practical level and facilitate co-evolution, self-organization, and dynamic adaptation.

Emergence vs. forecasting        Some time back I wrote a post on the question Will we overshoot and collapse? It was about a new report by the Club of Rome entitled 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, an update of The Limits to Growth (Rome, 1972), the launch of which 40 years earlier I remember very well. The great mistake was that a great forecast would lead to great planning and implementation. However, in 40 years nothing changed, at least not on a global scale. Because real change can only come about by the interaction between people of good will. Therefore real change needs a model, not of the future, but of systemic interaction. The co-evolution and emergence action framework of Waddock et al. is such a model. The question is whether it is feasible or realistic to capture sustainable targets in a universal agreement on climate during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference that will start in Paris on Nov. 30. Another question is whether bureaucrats and politicians are of sufficient good will and sufficiently systems literate to be able to interact effectively.


  • Waddock, S., Meszoely, G. M., Waddell, S., & Dentoni, D. (2015). The complexity of wicked problems in large scale change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(6), 993–1012. Retrieved from (you may also try Google Drive or ResearchGate).
  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from (for more info see:”wicked+solutions“)

About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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