Sharon Zivkovic On Tackling Wicked Problems & Creating Positive Impact With Systemic Design


Sharon Zivkovic has 20 years’ experience in social entrepreneurship. From 1999-2005 she supported citizens to create community enterprises while working on urban regeneration projects in South Australia. In 2005 she left the public sector and founded Community Capacity Builders which has been delivering social entrepreneurship and active citizenship programs since 2006.

In 2008 Sharon undertook a PhD research project to determine how to increase the impact of Community Capacity Builders’ programs. A key output from Sharon’s research was a model for addressing wicked problems that is based on complexity science. In 2015 Sharon and Emily Humphreys received the University of South Australia Pank Prize for Entrepreneurship which funded the establishment of Wicked Lab and the development of an online tool based on the model from Sharon’s PhD project. In addition to the online tool, Wicked Lab now delivers a Complex Systems Leadership Program and a program that supports Systemic Innovation Labs.


Sharon discusses the difference between simple and complicated problems, providing communities and governments with insights on how to best tackle complex issues with effective approaches.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to a career specialising in social innovation and entrepreneurship?

[Sharon Zivkovic] - I've got a background in business, so in the 90s I was actually the Finance Manager of Kosmea Australia. I used to also work part time for the School of International Business at University of South Australia. And then in 1999, I started work on an urban regeneration project as the Employment Development Officer. And the reason for the change was because I've actually got a welfare background. I was on the sole parent pension for 15 years. I was living in social housing in this particular community that was having the urban regeneration project.

And so, I went back to actually contribute to the rebuilding of this community. And it was 1999, so there were high levels of unemployment. And so the reality of people who were longterm unemployed, getting full time jobs was really, really difficult. So we ran this programme called How To Be Enterprising in the New World of Work. And it included working in collectives.

After we finished this initiative, a few weeks later, I got a four page letter from the participants on this programme, saying that they were still meeting in each other's homes. And the final line of this letter, (I still remember it!), was ‘we have rediscovered hope.’ And so we ran a couple more of these programmes and the people from the first programme met with the people on the future programmes. And they formed an organisation called the Organisation for Northern Enterprise. And I had a mate at the time who took 16 of these members through training qualifications.

And they started up this mutual and went after contracts delivering financial management courses in the northern suburbs of Adelaide using the cash flow board game. So that was really my start. And it happened at the time when we had the release of the Welfare Reform final report, which was really the, I guess the push for the social entrepreneurship sector in Australia. That was 2000 and they had recommendations like the formation of the Australian Social Entrepreneurs Network.

And then from there I went to two other urban regeneration projects. And because the focus of social entrepreneurship from that Welfare Reform final report was on building community capacity and strengthening communities, I was fortunate enough to take out an Enterprising Woman of the Year award back in 2001. Which gave me this incredible profile which I kind of leveraged and started up Community Capacity Builders, building on all of the public speaking that I was doing with regards to that time. So that's a bit of my background and how I've got into working in this space.

Sharon with City of Onkaparinga Community Leadership Program participants

Sharon with City of Onkaparinga Community Leadership Program participants

So tell us more about founding Community Capacity Builders and also Wicked Lab, and the sort of projects that you're involved in now which are creating some great positive social change.

Well, they're very different. Community Capacity Builders and Wicked Lab are very different. With Community Capacity Builders, in that role, I was contracted to deliver the University of Adelaide's Social Entrepreneurship Programme for 10 years. But also at the beginning of Community Capacity Builders, I did a Master's of Entrepreneurship through the University of Adelaide. And so for my nine point project, I developed this leadership programme. And it embedded into government systems. So it was citizens actually working on projects, but they were linked to government systems.

So the aims of Community Capacity Builders’ programme was participants being able to develop a collaborative community capacity building project of their choice, bridging what they were doing to the strategic plans of government, and also getting involved in community governance. And since 2006, this has been the training component of the City of Onkaparinga’s Leadership Onkaparinga Programme. And I'm really aware of the impact of that programme because during my PhD, I tracked 19 graduates of that programme for two and a half years. Interviewed each of them for an hour every six months to see what they could do with what they've learned from the programme.

And I knew that they were developing great projects and initiatives and a couple of them actually went on to develop enterprises. They also had all of the characteristics in the way they were working, that the three levels of government in Australia wanted for active citizenship, but what they couldn't do was create systems change. And so now Community Capacity Builders is developing two new programmes: a social entrepreneurship and an active citizenship programme, but they're taking into account that need to understand systems into the programmes.

And that's really where Wicked Lab has come from. Wicked Lab has actually developed the model for my PhD. It was actually commercialised and we turned it into software. The kind of problems that Wicked Lab is working on are the complex wicked problems. And the kind of projects we've got involved with are a family violence project in New Zealand, we've got a food insecurity project that's using our systemic innovation lab approach in Western Australia. We're about to start a disaster resilience project with the State Government in South Australia. And one I'm particularly excited about is a partnership between Local Government and State Government in South Australia that's looking at climate adaptation. And so that's the kind of things we're working on.

Screenshot Wicked Lab's online tool

Screenshot Wicked Lab's online tool

It's great that you've got to focus on looking at change from a systems level and from a root cause rather than sticking band-aids on things. So what have you learned then from working with communities and what are some of the fundamental ingredients that you think are necessary for these communities to be considering and using when trying to create projects that are creating positive change?

The fundamental thing that I reckon that communities need to be thinking about, is what type of problem they're trying to address.

So is it a simple problem? Is it a complicated problem? Is it a complex problem? Because the problem itself has different characteristics. So for simple and complicated problems, they have clear relationships between cause and effect. So you can use programme logic and theories of change and service design and those sorts of things which we traditionally use.

But complex problems have a multitude of underpinning causes, and those causes or factors are intertwined.

So there's all these positive and negative feedback loops.

So you can't just come and throw projects and programmes at it. So for me, it's knowing what kind of problem you're addressing. There's this law called, the law of requisite variety,’ which says that, the type of problem you're trying to address, the complexity of that, you've got to address it with an approach that's got the same level of complexity.

And so, for simple and complicated problems, service design is great, but for complex problems you need systemic design.

And the type of approach Wicked Lab takes for that is using a systemic design approach that looks at the dynamics of complex systems. So we take the complexity approach with regards to a systemic design approach. So that would be, I would say is the fundamental ingredient.

Know what problem you're addressing and use an approach that matches it.

So tell us a little bit more about the processes or tools and methodologies you use. You've mentioned a range of different design processes and ways of tackling these problems, but are there any specific ones that you could unpack a little bit further for the listeners?

Well for just simple and complicated problems, which are the types of problems you're developing initiatives for, I'm a big believer in logic models and I'm a big believer in theories of change.

Because if you can't describe your assumptions for the approach you're using to address a problem, you can't test those assumptions.

And your logic model is really what sets up your performance management system when you're actually working on stuff. For the new programmes that Community Capacity Builders are developing, it's also using system maps, so people can see where they fit within bigger systems. With regards to both the problem system and the solution ecosystem. With regards to what they're addressing.

So Wicked Lab, we use our own online tools. We've developed software which is used in communities. And with that software, what people do is they develop what's called a transition card. Which measures the transition of systems change. People who are using the tool, they use it for what's called a solution ecosystem. So if you've got a wicked problem, you're actually addressing it in a place. So the boundary of the solution ecosystem is the type of problem in a place.

And so they enter into the tool, all of the initiatives that are addressing any of those underpinning causes or factors, and all of the organisations that are partnering on those initiatives, and then map those initiatives to characteristics for transition. So there's 26 characteristics that support transitions from one state, that the system's in, to a more coherent state that's better able to address the wicked problem. And then there's another 10 characteristics which focus on the interface between that adaptive community system, and the workings of government. So that's the tool that Wicked Lab uses.

So in using this tool and having collaborated with a number of different communities, have you seen any common reasons why projects sometimes fail?

I would say with regards to why projects fail, I think there's two parts to failure. One is failure with regards to implementation, and then there's failure with regards to not achieving impact or not achieving outcomes. And so with failure with implementation, I'm a big believer in teams.

I think the days of hero entrepreneurship are well and truly over with regards to social entrepreneurship. And so it's having the right people and the right type of leadership and more collaborative, facilitative leadership.

With regards to not achieving outcomes, as I said before, I'm a big believer with regards to theories of change, understanding the assumptions and testing those assumptions. So putting the work in.

If you haven't got an understanding of how something works, it's really hard to actually achieve impact. And it's even harder to be able to transfer that and replicate that if you don't know what parts of what you're working on are the key ingredients, the magic sauce of why something creates change.

And then for wicked problems... community engagement is still important about having all of these different initiatives come together and work together. And there's this need to understanding how complex systems work, I think is also vital. And if you don't understand that and start using approaches that are more suited for simple and complicated problems, then you're not going to achieve impact either.

Absolutely. So in working within the social enterprise sector for a long time, how have you seen this transform the last five or so years? And where do you see it heading Sharon?

I would say one of the big movements is with regards to social procurement. I'm a big fan of social procurement and I think, and I guess one of the reasons why I'm really highlighting that one, is because I'm seeing organisations that are intermediaries actually changing their focus to social procurement. So I'd say that's a big change. But also there's a bit of a concern with that in that, social procurement; the research says that it can actually stifle social innovation. Because a lot of those tenders and the contracts are quite prescriptive with regards to what they want delivered. I do have some concerns. I'm kind of watching what's happening now with regards to the people who are playing in the high level social innovation, more of the disruptive types of social innovation are kind of moving more into the startup communities than the social enterprise communities.

And it's interesting because if we go back to 2010 when we had that FASES report, the Finding Australia's Social Enterprises, it was recognised that there was the traditional social enterprises, like the cooperatives and the social firms and the social businesses and the community enterprises, but we also had these emerging kind of social innovation businesses that were coming through. And I'm a bit fearful we're going to lose those out of the sector and they're going to move to the startup space, because we've got our focus more on the service type approach. Because if they move to the startup space, they're not going to be keeping track of their social impact to the same degree as if they were playing with us over here. So that would be my, a bit of my fear for the future

Kick-off workshop for Wicked Lab's Organisational Complex Systems Leadership Program

Kick-off workshop for Wicked Lab's Organisational Complex Systems Leadership Program

How very interesting. So you've mentioned government quite a bit today, Sharon, so are there any ways that you think government can most effectively engage communities then, in order to tackle some of these complex problems?

Well, it's a really good point.

Because wicked problems by definition are complex social policy problems. So governments have got a really key role to play.

Even to the extent like with the Social Innovation Europe project, their report on systemic innovation, they reckoned that governments have to create the enabling conditions for this kind of systemic way of working to happen. But there is a problem, in that governments like nice clear relationships between cause and effect. They like to be accountable, they like to be timely. Their way of working doesn't quite fit this. You know, create the conditions and then see what kind of emerges; it's not the way governments work.

So taking this complexity type approach is difficult, but I think the focus really needs to happen at that interface between adaptive communities and government systems.

And what's coming through in the research is how governments should play this way. They need to balance unplanned exploration of solutions with communities, but they need to balance that with a planned exploitation of what comes out of that. So they need to be able to take the innovation and the ideas and the knowledge back up into the government systems.

We're finding with Wicked Labs though, because we're measuring transitions, we're measuring the characteristics in initiatives that contribute to system transitions, that we are getting some buy in from government because at least they can measure the transitions. But yeah, government's got a vital role to play in addressing complex problems.

They certainly do. So, are there any inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across recently that you believe are creating some fantastic, positive social change?

I had the pleasure last year of visiting the city of Ghent in Belgium. And they have a Food Council that is doing some amazing work. I've had an interest in food type initiatives for many years and the type of wicked problems that I've been involved with in Australia would be in things like food insecurity, food waste, communities not being connected to their food system, are separate wicked problems. And what I found the work the Food Council were doing in the city of Ghent, they were looking at sustainable food systems which encompassed all of those wicked problems.

And so by being able to look over all of those wicked problems as one system, one sustainable food system, they were actually being able to focus on the interrelationships between those systems. And I must say, when I got back, we actually made some changes to the Wicked Lab software so that we can actually merge transition cards. So that if we have somebody who's working on food insecurity and they decide, "Oh, now we're going to start working on food waste and bring it together." We can now actually merge those cards together. So yeah, I found that project quite amazing with regards to the work they we were doing there.

Sharon meeting with Deputy Mayor Tine Heyse and Christophe Rogalle at the City of Ghent

Sharon meeting with Deputy Mayor Tine Heyse and Christophe Rogalle at the City of Ghent

So to finish off then Sharon, what books would you recommend to the listeners?

I have to come clean that I'm a big academic journal article reader. So with regards to the complexity theory, I'm into the Emergence Complexity and Organisation Journal. And we're about to bring out a special issue that I'm co-editing with a colleague that's bringing in some of the papers from the International Social Innovation Research Conference. Because we've got a complexity stream for that. I'm also into the social enterprise journals. I'm a big fan of the Social Enterprise Journal.

With regards to books, and books that have influenced me, I would say Joseph Nye’s book on Soft Power. And that's really related to how governments can work with communities with regards to attracting communities. So instead of like the sticks and carrots type of power, it’s how do you develop policies that attract people.

Michael Lipsky's book on Street-Level Bureaucracy and how street level workers interact when they're working with citizens. And there's a 30th anniversary edition, which looks at not only street level bureaucrats, but street level workers more generally. Because over the years, a lot of the work governments used to do has been outsourced to nonprofits. And so you have people working with nonprofits who've got kind of a bureaucratic type role working with citizens. And then I'd say finally Jeffrey Moore's book on Crossing the Chasm. So if you're working on a discontinuous innovation such as Wicked Lab, with regards to it's software, it sets out the plan with regards to developing a whole product solution to make it easier for people to actually take your innovation onboard. So I would say they are the books that have influenced me with regards to my work.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast


You can contact Sharon on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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