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Systems change is challenging work that requires complex relationship building, coordination, commitment, and resourcing, all against constant pressures to revert to the status quo.  Our Systems Change Coaching program offers consultation from systems change experts. This expertise is offered free of charge for systems change related grantees. 

Contact Freya Bradford with questions. 

 

Meet the Coaches

The Adjacency

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

The Great Start Collaborative plus community partners involved in the Early Care and Learning system in Northwest Lower Michigan.

 

We call ourselves “Partners in the POSSIBLE.”  We are a systems change and design consultancy made up of Kate Redman, Mark VanderKlipp, Jonathan Pool, Emily Mitchell and Woody Smith. We use the human-centered design principle of involving the human perspective in all aspects of the problem-solving process to achieve deep impact. We work together with our community partners and fellow consultants to build organic, self-sustaining networks of individuals and organizations that put people first, connecting them to inspire new ideas and bring new solutions to the world.

 

We try to balance strong theoretical practice with practical solutions that have a clear and measurable positive impact on people and communities – i.e. ‘keeping it real.’


Louise Armstrong, Freelance systems change facilitator, coach, and learning partner
Areas of systems change coaching: Leadership & Governance, Finding Leverage Points for Change, Collaboration Platforms and Mindsets, Facilitation Skills, Advocacy as a Systems Change Strategy 
 

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

A few of the threads to my work:

  • Exploring what an enabling and supportive ecosystem looks like for people who are living through change
  • Coaching, accompanying, and supporting collaborative groups, endeavors, and communities through the uncertainty of change processes
  • wondering how to create shared learning spaces to explore the practice of transformative governance
  • supporting funders and investors to experiment and build their systems change capacity via the Investors in Change program
  • Having spent 10+ years setting new things, seeing endings, grief, and loss as an underserved and untapped yet part of the change process so wanting to contribute to a culture and practice that works with these forces in a transformative way 

 

What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?

I bring my first-hand experience leading and designing ambitious, collaborative, and unknown processes with system-changing intentions. I look to bring different groups of people with very different approaches together. 

I frequently receive feedback on being an empathetic listener, bringing creativity and gentle challenge, and an ability to reframe things constructively. I offer reflective spaces to look at the bigger picture and patterns of what is going on- knowing it can be challenging to step back when you’re in the midst of things. I hope people feel supported and reassured when working with them and leaving with a different perspective on what next. 

 

What do you wish people understood about systems change work? 

I wish more people would recognize that systems change work, so often, is more than a job and a professional role or identity. More often than not, it is a lifestyle choice, a life's work, a manifestation of purpose. Being an effective system changer requires working and collaboration with others and the ability to be modeling and living the change you seek yourself.

Living change is a core, base, essential practice — a way of being for those seeking to influence and create change in the world. It is grounded in a recognition that the changes we’re aiming to develop are present within us and part of us. We are fractals of a bigger system at play. Learning from these changes at the different levels can make us more effective agents of change.

Living Change is a culture, a way of being and understanding the world. A way of making systemic change personal.

 


Jennifer Berman, Garfield Foundation, JB Consulting

Areas of systems change coaching: Systems Leadership & Facilitation; Navigating Inner Work, External Tools and Frameworks

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all? 

I’m in the middle of facilitating a six-week course for changemakers focused on systemic facilitation and just beginning curriculum design and development for an upcoming Basecamp Americas program - a four-month introductory course for social change leaders focused on complexity and systems change.

What is systems change coaching to you? 

My answer is continuously evolving. Today, I’d say:  Accompanying people on their journey as they explore what it means to live and lead in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.  It’s more than straight-up leadership coaching — it’s that, plus some mentoring & teaching about complexity, systems change frameworks, and how we adults grow and make meaning of the world and our place in it.   

What do you wish people understood about systems change work? 

It’s messy, sometimes exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, deeply humbling, and deeply personal — it requires a willingness to explore and navigate our internal complexity as well as the external complexity of the world.  And there is no silver bullet “best way” to engage with this work.  As George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  


Lucille Chrisman, Executive Coach

Areas of Systems Change Coaching: Adaptive Leadership, Communication Skills, Shifting Mindsets and Building Trust in Relationships

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

  • Practicing drawing causal loop diagrams with clients to deepen understanding of the systemic structures around their and others’ feelings/assumptions/behaviors that exist within challenges, expanding a range of choices for moving forward. 

  • Exploring the mental models for empathetic thinking and capacity to give and receive feedback and developing language for cross-boundary conversations. 

  • Using the iceberg model to stimulate curiosity, ask different kinds of questions, surface mental models (both my own and others'), and recognize leverage points.  

 

What drew you to systems change as an approach?  

As an executive leadership coach, I’ve listened to many leaders tell me stories of working very hard and long to implement grand strategies for change, growth, and success, only to find out that the systems they were trying to change essentially stayed the same. And in some cases, the organizational culture and community partnerships appeared even more resistant and hardened.  

These leaders initially went into leadership coaching with the hope of re-energizing their commitment to leading change, learning a few new tricks and tools for managing others, and a better understanding of their style of leadership. All good and worthy goals, but alone do not create the social change needed within the complex systems they are leading. 

As a coach working with leaders from a systems approach, we take deep dives below the iceberg, identifying what is present today and how unwittingly they might be contributing to the problem they want to solve. We explore and identify their mindset and assumptions that need to shift in order to make an impact on others. We recognize the needs of the whole system over their immediate self-interests and put into practice communication skills that build connections and trust.  

What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?

As a certified leadership coach, I am trained to ask powerful questions, explore root causes of chronic recurring behavior patterns and mindsets, and provide feedback and encouragement to explore different ways of working in collaboration with others while exploring new tools and practices for opening communication.  Often, the commitment to pause and reflect with a confidential partner has an impact in itself.  The opportunity to take a personal and professional view from the balcony before getting back on the dance floor can make all the difference.


Jessica Conrad, Garfield Foundation

Areas of systems change coaching: Systems Change Storytelling, Systems Leadership, Communities of Practice, Navigating Complexity

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

I’m currently co-authoring a book that shares the stories of transformative shifts in U.S. energy and environmental health systems and the people making them possible. It’s a guide to collaborative networks—a specific kind of multi-stakeholder collaboration—offering practices that groups of people united by a common purpose can use to tackle society’s most urgent problems. 

I also facilitate a community of practice for collaborative network leaders who need space to build connections, share stories, reflect on their collective work, and learn together about systems- and network-practices. They are deeply rooted in the communities they serve and are committed to making U.S. energy, environmental health, and food systems more equitable and just. 

What drew you to systems change as an approach? 

I started my career as a journalist. When I began writing about the Midwest energy transition, I followed my curiosity into a role with the RE-AMP Network, which focuses on equitable climate solutions. While I didn’t fully grasp network-/systems change- approaches at the time (needless to say, the learning curve was steep!), I was immediately drawn to the value the network placed on relationship building, participatory processes, collective intelligence, and co-learning. I later learned how to put words to what I was experiencing. People were trying out different ways of being together and relating to one another in their work—and creating real impact at the same time. For me, the approach was magnetic. Challenging and messy at times, yes. But radically different than anything I had experienced.

What is systems change coaching to you?

To me, coaching is the practice of creating a “thinking environment” for the coachee. In this supportive space, they might discover what they already know and what new ideas or opportunities they might have for a specific inquiry or vision. Coaching becomes systemic when it considers the broader systems and relationships the coachee is a part of, their whole person, their way of “doing, being, and knowing.” It’s about bringing in a systemic orientation.


Sarah Ely, Crescent Hill Consulting

Area of systems change coaching: Facilitation and Contemporary Meeting Design, Using Group Tension

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?     
-Provider of immersion training for facilitators. Liberating Structures: a systems-based repertoire of 33+ novel group techniques for meetings of any kind. Small shifts can structure meetings in ways that traditional methods cannot (e.g. managed discussion and roundtable). Face-to-face or Zoom.
-Meeting designer, facilitator, and consultant to nonprofit, government, and private sectors for important, high stakes meetings. Examples: cross-functional planning, problem-solving and innovation sessions; convening for strategic purposes; envisioning new initiatives with an intact work group or broader collective; highly engaged community forums.
-Executive Coach for the Rudi Ansbacher Advancing Women in Academic Medicine Leadership Scholars Program at U-M Medical School. Change leadership is central to program and coaching endeavors.

What is your coaching style? 
Connecting many dots through skilled listening and a penchant for forward action. This punctuates my coaching style - a Connector. My graduate training was systems theory and clinical practice. I’ve clocked countless hours with conflict theory and resolution practice, too. Systems change was the compass that made it possible to work effectively in five diverse sectors as an organizational development leader. Today, when I help others on matters of facilitation and/or using group tension, a key success factor is connecting dots and exploring viable options to inform design and facilitation planning. The kaleidoscope of stakeholders, conditions and challenges, strategic direction, leadership decisions, and resources is in full play when working together.

What do you wish people understood about systems change work?
When convening a group, include and engage representation from every facet. Today, many people recognize and strive for this. But without highly effective facilitation tools, it can be daunting to operationalize widely
diverse, active group engagement. The needle of change can move in ways never before thought possible when effective group facilitation methods are on board. Also, those who will directly carry out the work are a premium asset to change planning. Include them early and often. All levels.


Pennie Foster-Fishman

Dr. Pennie Foster-Fishman has over 30 years of experience partnering with communities and
states to build places where all children and families can flourish. Her consulting, research, and
evaluation efforts are grounded in the belief that change is most possible when all residents and
local leaders become active agents of change who are empowered to create neighborhoods,
schools, organizations, service delivery systems, and communities responsive to local needs
and designed to promote connection and equitable opportunities. Dr. Foster-Fishman has
consulted with hundreds of public sector, government and nonprofit organizations, community
coalitions, and funders around the world, advising them on strategic planning, effective strategy
design, and systems change design, implementation, and evaluation. Dr. Foster-Fishman’s
frameworks for promoting collaborative capacity, youth and adult engagement, and community
systems change have been adopted by communities, state/national agencies, and funders
around the world. Dr. Foster-Fishman is a retired professor from Michigan State University and
currently the President of Transform Change, a company that partners with communities, states
and funders to create system solutions engineered for equitable health, economic security, and
educational success.


Naava Frank, Knowledge Communities

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

I am currently working as a systems change coach for Purpose Built Communities, whose work addresses racial equity, affordable housing, community wellness, and education. Purpose Built takes a holistic neighborhood-based revitalization approach to breaking the cycle of poverty. We co-published a paper on how the Purpose Built Community of Practice (CoP), funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, addressed systemic issues in a time of COVID. My passion is helping clients develop sustainable system-wide networks and community learning strategies.

Who is a systems thinker that inspires you?

I am inspired by the work of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner, founders of Systems Convening and Communities of Practice (CoP), and by my mentor John Smith.  I come to systems change from the discipline of Communities of Practice. 

What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?

My coaching style is highly collaborative. I partner with clients, helping them discover and solidify their strengths while offering my perspective and experience. I aim for people to feel energized and supported, that new doors have been opened to them and they are ready to take a new step.

My clients say about me. “She is an excellent listener who was able to help me reflect on issues and relationships and see new ways to move forward.” “Naava is effective at reading the mood in a group and engaging the group in an empathetic, insightful way.” “She knows that this work can transform work and lives, and she knows how to make that happen in the most generous, honest, helpful way.”

What has been a memorable systems change consulting/coaching moment? 

A memorable system change moment was learning that a CoP of school leaders I had helped launch was still meeting after 15 years and had been of enormous support to school leaders when COVID hit. 

Through Communities of Practice, I have been gratified to see what happens when relationships are formed, trust is built, and we get the system in the room together.


Meg Hargreaves , MPP, PhD, NORC at the University of Chicago

Areas of systems change coaching: Systems Change Evaluation & Learning, Equity

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?
I am serving as a learning and evaluation partner to multiple foundation-funded culturally
responsive equity evaluations of national place-based systems-change initiatives addressing
disparities in local criminal justice, early child development, rural social determinants of health,
and k-12 education systems.

What drew you to systems change as an approach? 
Complexity science and systems thinking helped me understand and address population health
disparities.

Who is a systems thinker that inspires you? In what way?
My PhD advisor and mentor, Michael Quinn Patton, the creator of Developmental Evaluation
(DE). DE gave me an evaluation approach that recognized and worked effectively with the
complexities and non-linearities of human systems change.


Megan Motil, Parallel Solutions

Areas of systems change coaching: 
Governance, Strategy & Planning, Process design & Facilitation, Communication & Engagement 


What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?
This year, my systems-rooted services included consultative support for the Boardman-Ottaway River Network Collaborative, the Healthier Drinking Culture project, the Three Mile Trail, the Northwest Food Coalition, and the Water First Collaborative. I also guided half a dozen strategic plans and supported some clients’ leadership and governance transitions. I don’t call a lot of the work I do “systems” work, and, typically, neither do my clients. They say, “How do we connect with community members in meaningful ways and include diverse voices and perspectives?” Or “How do we manage tension or conflict and build trust among partners?” Or “We trust each other, and we’ve assessed resources and brainstormed ideas, now how do we evaluate and prioritize options?” Or “How do we clarify roles, make decisions, and hold each other accountable?” Some of the work I do is very public, and some is behind the scenes. Systems work happens in both settings.


What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?
Leaning into and leading any change process is hard, even when it’s a path we’re choosing. In a coaching relationship with a client, I hope they feel supported, seen, heard, valued, and understood. When they leave a session, I hope they feel they’ve gained clarity about their direction, contemplated something new, or received guidance about an approach, tool, practice, or resource in support of the next intentional steps they feel ready to take. Folks who work with me longer-term can also expect to receive texts, voice or email support in between coaching sessions.


Who is a systems thinker that inspires you? In what way?
My earliest exposure to “systems thinking” came from reading Elinor Ostrom’s research on “governing the commons” while working on my interdisciplinary undergraduate thesis on food systems in the late 1990s. Later on, during my graduate studies in organizational management, I was introduced to Margaret Wheatley’s writing. Early in my career, when I worked in government and then as a non-profit leader, their perspectives influenced how I approached my work. Many brilliant and empathetic thinkers, writers, and leaders inspire me today. But the people who move me the most are the system thinkers who are the doers, including folks in our local community who are committed to systems work related to housing, food, health, the environment, and energy. They’re examining the interconnectedness of various inputs and outputs, looking upstream at challenges and root causes, and working together in new and deliberate ways to create solutions and change the ways they work within their organizations and within multi-stakeholder networks. This type of collaboration takes a commitment to evolving and to sharing power and control, and resources. There’s always resistance and a temptation to revert to what’s safe and familiar, and to be influenced by what gets rewarded and incentivized within our organization, business, or society’s dominant or habitual framework. So, what these folks are practicing takes courage, determination, and tolerance for risk and failure.

What is your advice to those thinking of starting a systems change approach? 
Anyone who has ever worked on a group project knows collaboration is complex, even when it’s an approach we’re choosing to embrace. If you are motivated to address complex community issues like housing, food security, transportation, energy, ecology, and health, I will encourage you to take the leap. Systems change is grounded in relationships, shared learning, and trust. It works when people are motivated to participate wholeheartedly. My advice: Lead as a host, not a hero. Stay curious. Practice patience. Clarify communication, roles, and decision-making expectations. Establish a feedback process and stay accountable to each other. Try something. Learn and adjust, and keep moving, together. Give the process time. And if you feel stuck, ask for help.


Curtis Ogden, Interaction Institute for Social Change, Beautiful Ventures, Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, Netweaver Network, Food Solutions New England

Areas of systems change coaching: Leadership and Governance, Framing Complex Challenges & Exploring Challenges Systemically, Finding Leverage Points for Change, Designing Strategies to Change Systemic Patterns, Collaboration Platforms & Mindsetsquity & Inclusivity, Facilitation Skills, Managing and using Group Tension, Mindsets

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all? 

  • Supporting the Food Solutions New England Network into its second decade of work in evolving a regional food system that is sustainable, just, and democratically owned and operated.
  • Supporting a team focused on developing a network around the Wellbeing Blueprint to integrate principles of wellbeing into social and economic policies at federal, state, and local levels.
  • Supporting a collaborative of funders to grow a national faith-based network focused on advancing healing practice in communities.
  • Faculty in two national initiatives and another state-wide initiative in Mississippi to integrate racial equity and network principles and practices into community food and economic development systems.
  • Supporting the development of a learning network in Indonesia focused on marine conservation and sustainable fishing practice.
  • Supporting a regional collaborative effort in western Massachusetts to diversify the teacher workforce and bring equity and more community experience into classrooms.
  • Working with two state-wide conservation organizations to integrate equity and collaborative approaches into their conservation work.
  • Working with a state-wide food bank to integrate equity, collaborative leadership, and systems strategies into its work and internal culture.
  • Supporting an initiative in the District of Columbia to improve the legal/civil aid field and ground practice in anti-racism and anti-poverty principles.
  • Working with a team of researchers on how to bring the theory of “energy systems science” and “flow networks” into social change work.

What drew you to systems change as an approach? 

I was introduced to permaculture practice (sustainable/regenerative agriculture) while working at a grassroots development education center in Zimbabwe in the 1990s. That experience opened me to the wonder of living systems and thinking about how things interrelate. Designing with a permaculture mindset is something that still informs and challenges my practice. See for example.

What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?

I like seeing myself as a partner to those I coach. I enjoy learning with and from those that I coach and asking questions that can draw out new insights and ideas. I hope that people feel refreshed and enthusiastic as a result of my work with them as they lean into their development and embrace new possibilities.


Georgia Rubenstein, Forum for the Future

Areas of systems change coaching: Framing Challenges, Using Frameworks to Explore Complexity, Facilitation, Stakeholder Engagement, Collaborative Structures and Governance, Theory of Change & Strategy Development, Futures

What do you wish people understood about systems change work? 

That there are really no easy answers or a prescribed way to change a system, and that in fact, we’ll never really be able to say “check, system changed, moving on” – since, by definition, the systems we are working on are ever-evolving. Even if we achieve an outcome we like one day, it could all change the next day. So systems change is really a verb, a moving target, and something we’re all just fumbling our way through! I think this can sound a little disheartening and frustrating – it still is often for me, often finding myself thinking, “just tell me how to do it” – but on the flip side, it can be liberating. Systems change asks us to step back to our curious child minds, allowing ourselves to admit that we don’t know, to experiment, learn, adapt, and change course. Taking that first step over the threshold can be challenging, but so much potential can be unlocked once we do it.

If you could change one thing about the field/practice of systems change, what would it be?

The focus on tools. Certainly, this isn’t universal in the systems change field, but I do think there is a tendency to focus on the tools and frameworks for systems change – like how to develop a complex-looking system map – and it’s not always accompanied by the quality of thinking, the mindsets, and the approaches we need to bring to how we use these tools. A system map on a piece of paper (or screen) will definitely help us figure out what to do, but it must incorporate diverse perspectives, be accompanied by folks questioning their assumptions, be used as a tool for discussion and engagement, and so on.


Tanja Sarett, Synergies in Philanthropy

Areas of systems change coaching: Team-centered Fundraising, Governance, Onsite and Virtual Facilitation, Inclusive and Collaborative Innovation and Impact Planning (Liberating Structures, Technology of Participation, Design Thinking), Leadership Coaching, Online Collaboration Platforms and Tools, Stakeholder Engagement, Change Management

What are you working on right now to help make systems work better for all?

Focus on creating inclusive, engaging, safe opportunities for nonprofit leaders and networks to innovate, define goals and outcomes, and become a changemaker.

What is your coaching style? How do you hope people feel when they are working with you?

My coaching style is grounded in leadership and executive coaching. Coaching is about building a partnership with you to develop your leadership skills and help you become an effective changemaker.

Systems change approaches can include many aspects. What do you believe is one non-negotiable thing that every systems change initiative should include?

Every system change initiative needs to include the involvement and engagement of key stakeholders.