Odin Mühlenbein On How To Create System Change As A Social Entrepreneur


Odin Mühlenbein is a Partner at Ashoka Germany and Lead of Advisory at Ashoka Globalizer.

Globalizer is an accelerator program that helps advanced social entrepreneurs from around the world develop strategies for social system change. Odin is a “systems ambassador” within Ashoka and also tries to promote the idea of system change more broadly. Before Ashoka, Odin worked as a consultant at McKinsey and co-founded two social ventures.


Odin discusses why creating system change shouldn't necessarily be an overwhelming task and how it can be done as a social entrepreneur without operating at a global level.


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

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background in social innovation and systems change and what led you to working in this field?

[Odin Mühlenbein] - I think it was an unlikely journey to some extent. I started off in philosophy. That's my background. I went over to a management consultancy and started doing some pro bono work for Ashoka on the side and that felt more inspiring. So I switched sides, became a full time employee at Ashoka, at the Globalizer program, which is this strategy accelerator program, and have been there ever since. Before that, I also started two social ventures myself; an online fundraising and charity platform in Germany and a social venture in Bangladesh around affordable building materials. I like to have some entrepreneurial adventures as a hobby on the side.

It sounds like you have some great experience and you could probably empathise really well with the people that you've been working with...

Yeah, that's the idea. So it's always easy to talk to social entrepreneurs not from a thought partner perspective; but if you ever actually started to build something like an organisation yourself, you learned that you cannot always act according to textbook, right? So you have to keep it real to some extent. And I think being involved in some of these ventures has helped a lot in that regard.

Social Innovation Summit 2018 in Stuttgart

Social Innovation Summit 2018 in Stuttgart

So tackling things from a systems change level, in a recent article that you wrote for Stanford Social Innovation Review, you stated that to tap the full potential of a systems change approach, we should not limit our thinking to large transformational changes, but we should also include smaller, more targeted changes. So could you please unpack what system change actually means to you and the key points from this recent article?

Sure. The motivation for that article came from talking to lots of social entrepreneurs about this idea of system change and there's a very common reaction to this topic and that's that people get into a defensive mode and sometimes that's because the system change is perceived as this large, big transformational change; like getting rid of capitalism and changing the way education works from the ground up. That scares people or makes people feel as if they cannot really contribute to these huge transformational efforts. And that was always a bit startling to me, because the strategies that we developed at Ashoka Globalizer have very different kinds of goals, much smaller goals, still systemic goals, but much smaller. And so I thought that might be a message worth spreading; that system change can be systemic without being big. I mean, systems can be very small, right? A cell in the human body is a system. A human is a system. A city is a system. A neighbourhood is a system.

All these things are systems and in order to achieve system change, you don't necessarily have to operate on a global level on whole industries or these kinds of things.

So to mention just a few examples that we developed in the Globalizer program. So there's, Andres Rubiano, who is taking a look at the trauma care system in the Andean region and his intended system change is to establish new medical standards for procedures in that trauma care path, so that less errors occur and some inefficiencies are smoothed out. Improved standards in the trauma care part in the Andean region which doesn't sound that sexy, but is actually going to save lives. And then this is going to effect the system, namely the trauma care paths in the Andean region. And so that's a perfectly fine system change that the social entrepreneur can achieve.

Or in the health care system in Egypt, patients should go to general practitioners first, before being redirected to specialists, which is where they go to right now in the very beginning, and that causes a lot of inefficiencies. This is very small change in one healthcare system, in one country. People go to one kind of doctor before they go to another kind of doctor. It's very small, but still that would revamp the way that healthcare works in Egypt and that would save billions of dollars and increase health outcomes for the whole population. And so those are these kinds of levers. Smaller tier system changes are what we design strategies around.

When you package it like that, people are much less anxious when it comes to systems change, then all of a sudden it's like, "Oh yeah, I can do that too. I have something in mind. That sounds achievable," and so that helps us in getting more people on board with this idea.

It sounds like you're really passionate about making system change accessible to people. So how do strategies for system change then differ from traditional strategies for organisational growth, for example?

Here we are getting to the crux of it, because so far we've only been talking about the goal, right? What do we actually want to achieve on the systems level? And the next question is, well, how do you get there?

And here the main bottleneck is getting funders and the partners that you need for these kinds of goals convinced, and that's a real difficulty because most partners and funders are still thinking in the kind of for-profit startup mentality.

So they seem to think that you start small, you pilot something and then you grow the heck out of it until you have basically outgrown the problem. Wherever the problem is, your venture is too, to take care of it, and that can maybe work in a very few cases. I don't want to rule that out completely.

It might be a good strategy in some cases, but actually for most intended system changes that work, it turns out to be one of the least desirable options. It's just so costly. Takes so much time, so risky, so many operations to take care of. It's the last option we look at, really.

What we do instead is, we'll actually sum this up in what we call the Globalizer Mantra; aim for system change. That one we have already covered. The second would be focus on indirect impact, so instead of growing and then reaching as many beneficiaries directly as possible, do it via others; inspire others to do the work for you or with you and that's much more effective. And then thirdly, in order to be able to have indirect impact, you need to give up control and involve others. Maybe change course depending on the feedback that you get from others, and so that be the personal development side of things. And if you follow these three mantras, you have a good shot at actually achieving something.

So just to zoom in a little bit more on this idea of indirect impact, what can that look like? For example, instead of just pushing your services and products to all kinds of people and institutions, you could focus on knowledge work and just disseminate your insights so that others can pick it up and and adopt it to their situation.

You can work on ecosystem initiatives to strengthen the whole field that you are working in, so that everybody can be more effective. You can be engaged in advocacy or lobbying efforts even though you're still a social entrepreneur, but you know the stories you can tell, the cases you deliver, you can contribute a lot to policy efforts.

You can be involved in movement building. You can disseminate your new solutions openly, like you can have open source solutions. You can train others in doing what you're doing. You can do all kinds of things that are ultimately going to move the needle in terms of system change without you doing all the work.

It's really interesting and when you talk about those mantras, it sounds like one of the key qualities of a social entrepreneur could be being adaptive and really changing depending on the environment and how an initiative is working and how you therefore respond to that. So which qualities would you say a social entrepreneur needs to cultivate, in order to become a successful systems entrepreneur?

There's not three necessary skills or something like that. It's an entrepreneurial endeavour so you can get to the same goal in a lot of different ways. But there are three that are hot candidates; if I had to come up with a list. The first is just boringly systems thinking. I mean if you're engaging with systems, it cannot hurt to have some overview of what the system actually is, what the trends are, what the connections are, what the patterns are, etc. This sounds fancy, but it's just a technical skill that can be learned like any other.

I like to think about this as golf. You might not be good at it at the beginning, but you take some lessons, you learn some techniques, you get familiar with a couple of tools, you improve your equipment, and then you know, you will be decent in no time... That is really not the barrier, but that is something that you might want to invest in if you want to have systems level impact.

Then the second is the right kind of ambition. There's no point in trying to do this work if you're not actually inspired and motivated to affect the system, instead of helping the ultimate beneficiaries directly.

There's this saying by the founder of Ashoka, Bill Drayton, "The social entrepreneur is not content with giving people fish or teaching people how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry."

So you must learn to revolutionise the fishing industry. Otherwise there's no point. And ideally, you would be motivated to revolutionise the fishing industry for the right reasons. Not to be this heroic entrepreneur on a systems level, but to be a guardian or a servant to the system; to see the whole and to contribute to a bigger picture. That kind of stuff. You can get kind of philosophical on the second one, but that's what makes people stick to their goal and actually go after it for decades in many cases. And that's really what's needed for many system changes.

Then finally, this is already also captured in the Globalizer Mantras; this idea of openness, of giving up control, of keeping your ego in check. And this manifests in many different ways. At some point on the journey, you might be required to change resources with organisations that you might have perceived as competitors before, or you might have to give up decision making power in a broad coalition that together can actually achieve the system change. But you cannot do it alone. So you have to give up some decision making power. I sometimes call this the ego devil inside of us. It jumps and gets furious, but that's just something you have to get over in order to have a shot at system change.

It's a really nice summary there. You used the analogy of golf before and perhaps even changing your golf clubs. So are there any specific tools or methodologies then that you'd recommend to social innovators or social entrepreneurs to help them get to the root cause of problems?

Yeah. Usually what you would expect [as an answer] to that question is, "Here are three tools. Go use them."

But actually, the tools don't really matter. It's more the mindset with which you approach this exercise. And the tools are interchangeable, right? New tools come out every day. It's hard to even keep up.

But here are some general approaches or mindsets that can help you.

One really good skill is listening. And with that, challenging your assumptions. Those two alone can maybe get you 70% through the whole journey, because if you just develop a system change strategy in your armchair, in your living room and then go out and execute, that just will not work.

Because even if you have decades of experience in this particular sector or system, you will only have a certain overview and many other people will know many other things that are also relevant.

You really need to talk to many people. question what you believe is true about the system, question your assumptions about the interconnectedness of many, of the drivers of the problem that you want to solve.

And so that's a really good general tendency. And then there are tools to do that more effectively. But really, once you are on that journey, you will find the tools. So I don't worry about that too much.

Another really useful skill is storytelling.

Since ultimately you will need a coalition of players to work together to achieve some sort of system change, you need to have the vision and the story line on how to get there that can unite these different types of players.

And so being able to craft these stories, and to tell them together and make them understandable to each of these different actors that come together in these kinds of networks; that is really crucial. You don't have to be good at it yourself. But I think just realising how important it is and to get experts to help you in case you are not the perfect storyteller; that can help a lot.

Then there are more technical things like systems mapping and systems analysis and these kinds of things. But really if you're more of a nerd kind of personality, then by all means buy the books, get good systems dynamics and do the system maps yourself. But if you aren't, don't worry. Just get somebody on your team who likes these exercises to do it for you.

It's some good advice. I imagine looking at it from a systems change perspective, you'd be an advocate for place-based solutions? Keeping that in mind, are there any particular countries that you believe are really leading the charge as a broader ecosystem when it comes to social innovation? What do you think those countries are doing well that other countries can learn from?

Now we have to generalise on a country level; that's going to fail, but let me make one point. I think many of the institutions that are leading the way happen to come from the US or Canada. The McConnell Foundation, Rockefeller, the Co-Impact Initiative that was just announced by Rockefeller or Bill Gates, etc. Even the Hewlett Foundation have some really cool initiatives.

It seems to be mostly extremely rich and big US-based foundations that are just saying, "Let's give this a shot, let's invest $10 million to see what we can achieve on the systems level."

And if I had to guess, it seems to be this kind of venture capital mentality in the social sector that can make a big difference. For many of the continental donors and funders that I've been talking to, the complexity of the issues, the uncertainty that comes along with supporting changes in these systems; that is really hard to swallow for many of them.

They don't seem to have the same degree of freedom that some of the US institutions seem to enjoy. That would be my message to many of the European funders. Just try to create some space where you can just experiment with systemic initiatives.

It doesn't have to be big. As I said, a system change competition or smaller things can be done for small six digit figures, to just start experimenting with this way of funding social change... I'm not here to say that nothing is really happening. There are a lot of interesting initiatives actually, but when it comes to the big decisions; the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in these kind of things seems to come from the US.

Interview with Jeroo Billimooria. Image © Christian Klant.

Interview with Jeroo Billimooria. Image © Christian Klant.

Beyond the large US organisations you've just mentioned, who do you find inspiring in this field and which initiatives do you look to as strong examples which are creating strong social impact and system change?

A few names might come to mind, but actually, I might hurt their cause by saying them. Because what seems to be happening in many institutions and what I hope is also going to happen at European institutions soon is that there are some systems enthusiasts who make some higher level decision makers to actually take a risk and start doing something.

And for this to expand, for this to happen more frequently, these high level decision makers need to be seen as the heroes of the story. So it wouldn't be a good idea to put the systems enthusiasts in the spotlight here.

If you are a systems enthusiast, just make sure that somebody higher up in your organisation has something to win by just giving it a try and making it as easy as possible for them to take that risk.

That seems to be the way forward to get started. In terms of how they can achieve them, there are some particular initiatives like McConnell and what they're doing in the ecosystem, building initiatives, or the Hewlett foundation strengthening the democratic system in the US. Those are really cool lighthouse projects, but then there's also stuff like Co-Impact. I believe they haven't even selected their first projects to fund, but just by announcing that $500 million dollars are going to be invested in system change, they have done the whole field a huge favour.

I think the $500 million would have been worth it even if every single initiative that they fund fails miserably. Just the message that this way of looking at social impact is to be taken seriously is probably worth the $500 million itself.

Absolutely. That's a really interesting viewpoint there. So to start winding things up then, could you please recommend a few great books or resources for our listeners?

As I said, new tools are being developed all the time. It's hard to keep up. But there are two books that are a good foundation and that we recommend internally to everybody who wants to get started with system change and systems thinking. If you have read one of the two, you don't have to read the other, necessarily. One is Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroll. This is more hands on... if you want to learn patterns and tools that you can apply to your work immediately, this one is probably for you.

And then there's another one: Thinking in Systems by the great Donella Meadows. They come from the same discipline, system dynamics, but Donella's book is more philosophical, more wise, but less tangible and less applicable. So if you want to get started, pick one of those two. It will be a great basis for your systems journey.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


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

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