What is Systemic Change?

Dr. Myosha McAfee

Founder | CEO of The Equitect™

Change involves transformation. The end of something and the beginning of another - in hopefully a better form. Transformational change invokes the circle of life - a season for death and a season for rebirth. A season for shedding and a season for regeneration. Accomplishing this level of change on a systemic level is to have transformation across functions, departments, and levels in a hierarchical organization.


Let’s pause to take this all in for a moment. Think of the size of your team, function and company/organization. Think of the number of levels.

Consider the personas, personalities, dispositions, mindsets, worldviews, beliefs, and values.


Consider how the range of the above co-exist in the same context. They might collide, crash, and collapse. With ripples that might cascade, splash or undulate in a myriad of directions.


Containing, shaping, and arranging all of this is the work of systemic change.


It’s a Herculean task that reminds of the eternal efforts between a boulder and Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, the work is exhausting, exacting, and endless.



Nine Elements of Systemic Change

Systemic change has a range of sites upon which it occurs - a person, condition, structure, belief, and culture. I also see it as consisting of at least nine elements:

  1. Size
  2. Authenticity
  3. Shape
  4. Persona
  5. Expertise/Discipline
  6. Duration
  7. Scope
  8. Pace
  9. Intensity


To view systemic change through a constellation of these nine elements is to avail yourself of:

  • Elements that can be organized
  • Levers that can be pulled
  • Moves to approach with inquiry

Size of the Systemic Change:

  • Tweak
  • Mild modification
  • Overhaul


Authenticity of the Systemic Change:

  • Symbolic
  • Performative
  • Partial with some omissions
  • Holistic and real

Shape of the Systemic Change:

  • Structural changes that are rearrange the same hierarchy
  • Structural changes that change personnel but retain mindsets and dispositions
  • Structural changes that seem flat (horizontal leadership)
  • Structural changes that form a pyramid (few at the top, many at the bottom)
  • Structural changes that form a circle (Indigenous Elder circle)

Persona of the Systemic Change Drivers:

  • Rigid, hierarchical, risk-averse
  • Flexible, egalitarian, daring
  • Strategic and focused
  • Tactical and diffuse
  • etc


Expertise/Discipline Guiding the Systemic Change:

  • Economics and Profit Margins
  • Social Science
  • Education, Learning, Organizational Development
  • Business Psychology
  • Human Resource Management
  • etc


Duration of the Systemic Change:

  • Steady state, constant
  • Intermittent
  • Cyclical


Scope of the Systemic Change:

  • Within functional boundaries
  • Within organizational boundaries
  • Among a team within an organization
  • Among teams within an organization
  • At individual contributor level

Pace of the Systemic Change:

  • Slow and incremental
  • N-shaped: starts slow, increases mildly and drops again
  • H-shaped: starts slow, increases sharply, drops mildly, and drops again
  • M-shaped: starts slow, increases mildly, drops again, repeat

Intensity of the Systemic Change:

  • No heat:  🧊
  • Low heat: 🔥
  • Mild heat: 🔥🔥
  • High heat: 🔥🔥🔥


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