Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

Systems diplomacy: is this the end of social entrepreneurship?

In Futures on August 13, 2012 at 6:15 am

Last week I wrote a short post titled Now Hiring: Systems Diplomats and had a most surprising reaction. My niche little blog with its humble readership suddenly swelled, at least momentarily. There was something in this post that seemed to resonate for people very strongly.

It might have been not much more than the first two words “Now Hiring” which gave the reader some false hope that in this post was an intriguing new job available, only to realize that it was a fake ad. But the comments and feedback I received on twitter showed something more.

Firstly, to be clear, the meme explored in this post or even the name is not original. I first came across this about a year ago in conversation with a friend, colleague and fellow knowmad @edwardharran. At the time we used the term Ecosystems Diplomat.  Eddie subsequently chatted with @katemural who wrote a stellar post on ecosystems diplomacy. Kate also explored the idea of a kind of Ecosystems Diplomacy Corp. While I have been mostly unaware until recently, there have been others exploring these meme from different angles all over the world, blending it with other memes like open space technology and collective impact.

The collective impact meme was made publicly known and accessible by the team at FSG who have diligently mapped a bunch of collective impact initiatives, and created a framework for how these work. While systems diplomacy is not limited to multi-institutional collaboration, there is definite correlation with the qualities required to facilitate collective impact projects. FSG have focused very heavily on the importance and contribution of backbone organisations in these processes. Systems diplomacy can shed some light on the qualities and approaches of the people who are doing this work.

However one talks about this emerging field, the collective consciousness is clearly picking up on the need for and designing a new kind of changemaking. There is a remarkable convergence around these memes, how they are developing and being discussed.

For me the job post and it’s descriptions were not plucked from thin air.  Systems diplomacy is now a core part of my work, along with a bunch of colleagues in Australia and across the world. When I wrote about the role of systems diplomat I was conjuring up stories, observations and insights gathered from this collective experience. Some of it comes from hearing the qualities that are required, while others are what I perceive as needed responses to the challenges that are often faced by people engaged in systems diplomacy.

We are living in the era of Social Entrepreneur as King (or Queen), and the world seems obsessed with the individual and institution as the most eloquent force for change. In this light, collective and systems change may seem quite a leap to some. Of course given my pedigree, I am not going to jump to dismissing social entrepreneurship as redundant or on the ‘way out’. On the contrary, I suspect that it will keep growing and morphing. Indeed many changemakers I know who have started out with an entrepreneurial approach have blended systems diplomacy with their work as they know they cannot achieve change without tackling challenges associated with the systems.

Notwithstanding this morphing and blending, there are some clear distinctions between social entrepreneurship and systems diplomacy. For one, entrepreneurship usually denotes a quality of institution building as opposed to systems building.  A colleague and serial social entrepreneur @JanOwenAM has been working on systems change for many years. While Jan may not use the term systems diplomacy to describe her approach, she strives for many of the qualities I perceive are required. What more, Jan is a strong advocate for using institutions as a foundation for creating systems change – the institution is the vehicle through which innovation can occur to change a system.

This philosophy resonates with the work of Ashoka who have been tirelessly promoting the idea that social entrepreneurs change systems. Indeed,  Ashoka and organisations like Echoing Green and the School for Social Entrepreneurs have some powerful examples of how that has worked. So perhaps systems diplomacy is growing out of the social entrepreneurship movement as much as being a new force.

Regardless of its origin and lineage, I perceive some distinct differences between the entrepreneurial and systems approaches. While the two approaches to changemaking may be compatible and interdependent, the approach of the systems diplomat is distinct in a few ways.

The first is that which I have already mentioned – systems diplomats work with institutions but they do not represent particular institutions. From personal experience as a social entrepreneur, I find that within a short time of building an institution your role as Director or CEO is to ensure its survival, growth and perpetuity. While you may start with an intention to change a system, you invariably end up serving the institution ahead of the system in the SocEnt Hierarchy of Needs. I don’t suggest this as a criticism, it is just a reality.

The second is this idea of independence – real and perceived. Independence from the constrains of meeting the needs of the institution is important, but also independence in thinking. The systems diplomat needs to be able to hear multiple views and not accepts them as truth. Maintaining a level of clarity and detachment in thinking is critical. As the saying goes …if you want truth to stand clearly before you, do not be for or against anything (Buddhist Zen Master Sent-ts’an).

Perceived independence is also important in building trust. Facilitating a more collaborative system will not immediately dissolve competition. Players in any system may hold multiple roles and relationships with each other including competitor, collaborator, funder, supplier, client or others. Entering a collaborative approach does not dissolve existing power differentials. Each role and relationship has different power dynamics that need to be understood and navigated. If these players perceive a lack of independence or having bias, this may impact the effectiveness of the diplomat.

While I am yet to do any particular research around the area of personality and motivation, I suspect that there are also strong differences between those who would take an institution building approach from a systems diplomacy approach. The types of people who are drawn to building institutions will not necessarily be drawn to systems diplomacy and vice versa.

I have written and spoken on the need for systems diplomats to posses humility and not make themselves the focus. While entrepreneurship is often falsely equated with Ego, I dismiss this idea (click here to read more on my thoughts about Ego and entrepreneurship). I perceive that Ego can become a trap in almost any field, including potentially systems diplomacy. In social entrepreneurship it is not so much the institution approach that feeds the Ego, rather it is fed by the recognition and elevation of the individual as cause of change by both the individuals themselves and the collective. If a systems diplomat believes that they are the one creating the change, then they too could fall into this trap.

As you can see this field is still so emergent, that the research and understanding needed around it is considerable. I am really interested in hearing from people out there who are working in this field to help capture some collective learning around systems diplomacy. Please leave a comment or blog about this yourself – happy to link to your stuff. Or get in touch as I would love to have a conversation.


  1. Hi Benny,
    Thankyou for sharing your thoughts on this. I’ve never heard of the term systems diplomat until reading your blog just now but it resonates with me a lot and the kinds of approaches I take with various orgs I’m involved in. Might explain why I dont seem to work with just one changemaking org or initiative because it just doesnt seem like it’s enough to create the kind of changes we need and I feel this can only happen through partnerships and collaboration across many many organisations and levels. Would love to have a conversation with you about this further!
    Karen Corr

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