System behaviours

We have identified core behaviours that help systems function better for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage. Through observing different fields including homelessness, violence, health, the arts, community development, substance misuse and youth work, we’ve seen that (i) it is the presence of these behaviours, more than any specific methodology, that seems to account for positive change and (ii) these behaviours need to be present and continually promoted in every part of the system.

These behaviours are about perspective, power and participation.


  1. People view themselves as part of an interconnected whole

Everyone working towards positive change understands that their actions form part of a web of activity made up of the contribution of many others. Everyone wants the system as a whole to work, and knows they cannot control it.

  1. People are viewed as resourceful and bringing strengths

Everyone is viewed as bringing both strengths and weaknesses as part of a resourceful network of people who are continually growing and learning from each other.

  1. People share a vision

People appreciate each other’s perspectives and seek common purpose and understanding.


  1. Power is shared, and equality of voice actively promoted

All people are able to play their fullest role in building an effective system. Unequal distribution of power, including structural inequality, is continually addressed.

  1. Decision-making is devolved

Those people closest to a complex situation are free to engage with its uniqueness and context and to use their initiative to respond to it.

  1. Accountability is mutual

System improvements are driven by accountability to the people being served. The people being served are supported to take responsibility for their own change.


  1. Open, trusting relationships enable effective dialogue

People feel safe to ask the difficult questions, voice disagreement and deal with the conflict and uncomfortable emotions that surface.

  1. Leadership is collaborative and promoted at every level

Leadership is identified and valued as much in the person experiencing interlocking disadvantages and the frontline worker, as in the CEO or commissioner.

  1. Feedback and collective learning drive adaptation

People can see a learning loop between the actions they take and their understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, so that each is being continually adapted and refined.


We hold five assumptions about the nature of systems which come from our experience of supporting change across the UK:

  1. Systems are complex and often messy webs that are constantly shifting. They consist of tangible things like people and organisations, connected by intangible things like history, worldviews, context and culture.
  2. Everyone who is part of a system holds a different perspective on its nature, purpose and boundaries. No one person holds the whole truth (including us).
  3. Everything and everyone exists in relationships, and these involve emotions.
  4. Change emerges from the way the whole system behaves not from the actions of any one project or organisation. We therefore need to help build the fitness of the system to generate positive change.
  5. The complexity of systems means we can’t fully plan how to achieve the changes we seek, but we can identify several conditions that enable positive change and the actions that are likely to move us toward our goal.