Activating system change with cross-sector ideas

At a recent breakfast, a panel of thought leaders discussed activating system change.

How could we activate system change, with cross-sectoral approaches that effectively tackle our complex community issues?

This question was posed to a leading expert panel at a recent breakfast event facilitated by Impact Boom CEO Tom Allen. CSIA CEO, Belinda Drew, joined incoming Professor of Social Innovation at Griffith University Professor Brad Jackson, Community Insights Executive Director Helen Sharpley and Queensland Social Innovation Manger at Marist 180 Steve Williams as they spoke to a room full of thought leaders and change makers.

The full highlights transcript and podcast of the event can be found on the IMPACT BOOM website. The panel event started with questions posed by Tom Allen then opened up to the audience. We encourage you to listen to the podcast and read the highlights of the event provided on the website.

The discussion continued over breakfast and we have some takeaways to savour until you have time to listen to the whole thing:


The discussion started with Dr Ingrid Burkett’s recent comment that “what is happening in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities is that there has been the same sort of outcomes for about 30 years. Nothing much has shifted despite the fact that we’ve invested millions of dollars in those communities.”

While the panel agreed with the statement, they also agreed that there were organisations who were making some gains at the coalface. They commented that even with significant financial investment, mostly delivered through ‘Meteor investments’, to our disadvantaged communities there has been little gain with overall outcomes.

Belinda summarised this section by saying: “We need investment realignment, but we need people to get beyond their own individual and organisational interest and start to think about investment at that systems level.”


Defined by Rittel and Webber as a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four key reasons:

  • the incomplete or contradictory knowledge
  • the number of people and opinions involved
  • the large economic burden
  • the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

According to the pair, social problems are never solved but re-solved over and over again.  The panel discussed the most effective approaches to tackling these problems:

  • Helen Sharpley said: “The approach is really human-centred design, [with co design and design thinking]. It is about gathering a really deep understanding of the community and the people that are experiencing the problems that we talk about in these forums.”
  • Prof Brad Jackson brought the discussion back to collective leadership and said: “The leadership scholar Keith Grint has argued that in order to tackle wicked problems our whole leadership mindset has to change from being focussed about the individual leader in a particular organisation.”
  • He further went on to say “we believe effective leadership to be far more collective and beyond a particular organisation.”
  • For Belinda, she found that the idea of wicked problems brings deficit focus. But what was interesting at the moment is that people should focus on the human services space as it is reshaping itself. She said: “People have their own aspirations and views of the world, and have their own ideas about how they want to live and change their own lives. And it forms in Australia as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a little spot of bright light towards that goal of putting people in charge of what happens in their own lives.”


The question was posed to Helen Sharpley: how do we shift paradigms; how may we work more collaboratively and tackle the root cause of issues?

Her response was focussed around designing solutions from a whole of system perspective. She gave examples of current issues where the government focuses on just one part of the overall issue, but how do the different areas work together to address issues differently?

“If we can look at a whole of system perspective,” Helen said, “and consider all of what different people bring, and the strengths that people bring, and build the capacity and capability to actually implement policy better.”


A discussion occurred about governance best practice approaches for sustaining long-term leadership in cross-sectorial initiatives with many stakeholders. Prof Brad Jackson said that his experience encouraged him to think about the governance that supports leadership.

“The role of governance is to create the frameworks to take that long-term view to provide the kind of stewardship that is required to sustain good leadership.”


The panel discussed scaling the methodologies of social enterprises as many times you may not be able to scale the work the enterprise carried out. This was because it might be solving a local issue that may not exist in another location, but the methodologies could be used again. There was further discussion on the organisational mindset that focuses on the charity model. The panel agreed that it was time to move from this way of thinking and let the social entrepreneurs in.

Would you like to delve deeper into the discussion? Head over to the Impact Boom website for the podcast and highlights transcript.