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Commentary August 5th, 2021
Delivery • Innovation • Legitimacy
Shaheen Warren Programme Manager, Europe
Jenny Oppenheimer Programme Manager, Lankelly Chase

Systems convening: leadership for the 21st century

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.@CPI_foundation has partnered w/ @LankellyChase @theRSAorg @WengerTrayner to develop a new book 'Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century'

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"As a form of cross-boundary leadership, systems convening is an approach well suited to the most complex of challenges, with the potential to help all institutions thrive in the 21st century." Learn more in our new book.

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Why is #systemsconvening important? It elevates a different kind of leadership, it's a better approach to sharing power, it understands the importance of earned legitimacy and it provides the tools to embrace complexity.

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COVID-19 and the ensuing global pandemic has represented the greatest public health challenge of a generation. Yet, this is just one of a number of complex global challenges that we face: an expansive list that also includes climate change, growing inequality, food security, migration, and many others. It is undeniable that both state and non-state actors are being asked to solve increasingly complex problems. 

So how might we respond to these challenges, and what questions need to be explored along the way? Often in our work, we focus on how people make their best contribution: What leadership is required when dealing with the greatest complexity faced by a generation? What skills and capabilities are valued and most impactful? Do we already have the tools and techniques to respond to 21st century challenges, and if yes, where does this expertise exist? 

Enter Systems convening. Very little has been said about this important skill set, or the people who do this work, systems conveners. They exist in all successful partnerships, those who are able to bring people together across different practices, organisations, goals, and cultures. They enable learning across boundaries and connect people across silos, seeking to engage diverse perspectives. As a form of cross-boundary leadership, systems convening is an approach well suited to the most complex of challenges, with the potential to help all institutions thrive in the 21st century. 

Recognising the possibilities of this, our organisations -- the Centre for Public Impact and Lankelly Chase -- partnered with the RSA and social learning pioneers Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner to develop a book about systems convening, Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century. This research captures interviews with 40 systems conveners from around the world, featuring portraits of these individuals to illustrate the work of systems convening in practice. 

Our purpose? To challenge the traditional understanding of what leaders do and the role they play in advancing social change. To shine a light on the vital work systems conveners are doing around the world, which otherwise goes unnoticed. But most importantly, to create a resource to help elevate the practice of those already doing systems convening, and ensure that those interested in learning more have the tools to apply this approach to our most pressing social issues. 

Want to continue the conversation around systems convening? Why not join the discussion by registering for the launch webinar on 2 September, where you’ll be able to hear from the authors and systems conveners.

What we’re learning

What is striking is the sheer variety of work being done. Systems conveners are working all around the world. Some are tackling local issues, while others act globally. They are working on diverse topics which range from tribal conflict resolution in Nigeria and systems transformation in the UK’s National Health Service, to ensuring legal representations for all accused worldwide. Systems convening is an approach that can be applied to a number of different contexts.

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The research also found that systems convening typically involves seven key areas of work:

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While systems conveners come from a variety of backgrounds and take different approaches to convening, what unites them is a common mindset:

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Why is systems convening so important? 

1. Systems convening elevates a different, more humble, kind of leadership

"I often say that my goal is trying to create the climate for other people and giving them the platform to solve problems they already have solutions for, but they've just never been empowered to solve." - Carl Davies, Systems Convener

We know that social change doesn’t rest on one heroic actor or individual, even though historically, this kind of individualistic leadership has often been favoured. System conveners help to redefine what traditional leadership looks like, how it operates and who is considered a leader, by instead elevating more collectivist leadership characteristics. These are exactly the kind of qualities that are vital for engaging in the collective and participatory work that’s needed to tackle complex global challenges. 

2. A better approach to sharing power  

"We are trying to see what's actually happening, with you, in a way that together, everybody who is involved in the system under discussion can be a part of finding solutions to it, and helping those solutions spread." - Caroline Rennie, Systems Convener

As the book highlights, systems conveners ‘welcome bottom-up initiatives as an engine of transformation because they believe that change is more likely to be sustainable when people have an active part in it.’ This strongly resonates with our shared view at the Centre for Public Impact and Lankelly Chase, that power should be shared with those best placed to act. It is often those closest to the issue that best understand it, and are best placed to develop the strategies for change. 

The role of the systems convener is important therefore because they are in a unique position to help facilitate this sharing of power. They can convene diversely and inclusively to engage people across organisations, communities and other landscapes as needed. Their example demonstrates how power can be shared inclusively, in a way that is most likely to result in strategies for change that are both effective and long-lasting.

3. Understanding the importance of earned legitimacy 

"Building relationships with individuals is a way of sowing seeds for the future." –  Isabel Ho, Systems Convener

The global pandemic forced many governments around the world to be more paternalistic and interventionist, and many continue to face a growing deficit of legitimacy. This book illustrates how legitimacy must and can be earned. Legitimacy is vital for systems conveners to do their work effectively. Yet legitimacy is not a given. It is not guaranteed by one’s job title, position or qualification. Instead, systems conveners must earn and command their legitimacy through authenticity, transparency, trust and relationships. This is the new currency of power. As such, systems conveners challenge the traditional dynamics of power and privilege. Their approach to earning legitimacy offers vital lessons which governments and other actors must learn from if they are to command the legitimacy needed to achieve lasting impact. 

4. The tools to embrace complexity 

"Their stance and approach to all aspects of their work reflect this insistence on achieving results that are meaningful to all while taking challenges in their social full complexity." - Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner

Many of the challenges we face in society are complex in nature and are only becoming more so. They involve many actors, interacting in different ways, which are often interconnected and interdependent. If we want to address these complex challenges, it is fundamental that we are able to see the system as a whole. This is what the systems convening approach does and precisely why it is so crucial. Systems conveners embrace the human world in all its complexity. They connect people across silos and engage the perspectives of all involved to facilitate genuine connection and inclusive solutions. When working to make a difference and enact real social change, this awareness of the interconnectedness of issues and the ability to convene across landscapes is necessary to move things forward.

Where to from here?

Public servants and those working across the social sector need a refreshed toolkit to effectively tackle the increasingly complex problems we face around the world. Systems convening lays out precisely those characteristics that are needed and is an important contribution to a new leadership skill set that is fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

In a world that is increasingly globalised and fragmented, which is only just beginning to emerge from a global pandemic, the role of systems conveners is more important now than ever. Their cross-boundary leadership offers a way forward, whether tackling global or local challenges. The more we can foster this crucial form of leadership, the better we can work together to imagine solutions that truly respond to the century’s biggest problems.

Discover what we've learned

We’ve worked with partners to explore systems convening and how this can be applied to complex challenges. Download the book to discover more about what we learned.

Download the book

Written by:

Shaheen Warren Programme Manager, Europe
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Jenny Oppenheimer Programme Manager, Lankelly Chase
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