The Power to Shift a System

Interventions report

November 2021

System innovation initiative. The Four Keys: Power


In Building Better Systems, we introduced four keys to unlock system innovation: purpose and power, relationships and resource flows.


These four keys make up a set. Systems are often hard to change because power, relationships, and resource flows are locked together in a reinforcing pattern to serve the system’s current purpose. Those with power in the system use it to shape the purpose which serves their interest and view of the world. Systems start to change fundamentally when this pattern is disrupted and opened up. A new configuration can emerge, which serves a new purpose, but only if there are new patterns of relationships, a new flow of resources and a new distribution of power.


In this article series we delve deeper into these four keys and provide practical advice on how they can be put to use.

This article focuses on the role that power plays in determining what happens in systems, and how system innovators can mobilise power to create new systems.


Purpose is the master key for unlocking system change: what a system is for, the outcomes it seeks to create. However, it is almost impossible to shift the purpose of a system unless there is also a shift in who has the power to determine that purpose, how resources flow, whose needs take priority and what is counted as a good outcome. Shifts in purpose and power go hand in hand. This article focuses on how to shift power within and around a system.

Within systems, power works in complex ways. This presents both challenges and opportunities for those embarking on system innovation. Power takes hard and soft forms: it can be embedded in culture and observable in explicit instructions; it can work for good and for bad, for public benefit and private gain. Innovators who aim to shift systems inevitably develop solutions that challenge the distribution of power within a system. That is why these innovations can provoke such opposition: they often threaten vested interests.


This article explores how we can think and act on power in systems to bring about a system shift. It is based on four critical distinctions about how power works. These four perspectives on power should help system innovators see where power lies and how it can be redirected, and where power can be mobilised in the name of creating better, different systems.

Related publications



Webinar: The Power to Shift a System

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Inverventions report

Building Better Systems

Go to Inverventions report

More about the initiative


System Innovation

Go to initiative