May 2019

Is disruption essential for success?

Sharon Fraser, Associate, CFI

At the end of last year I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS), Healthy Children, Healthy Weight. The SGS is an organisation formed at the end of World War 11, in response to the loss of intellectuals and creativity from the second world war. Austrian and American intellectuals committed to gathering people from diverse countries to tackle significant issues. Their belief was that this would not only rebuild intellectual and creative capital but that working on complex global issues internationally would help build a peaceful future.

There were 50+ participants from many countries who came together to explore the issue of Healthy Children, Healthy Weight. Some were from countries tackling underweight children while others were struggling with growing obesity. A relatively small number of participants were tackling this issue directly. Others were tackling significant social, economic, behavioural or environmental change in innovative ways. The idea was to bring together many different views to help to understand and tackle this complex social issue.

Much has stayed with me since the SGS, one of the issues that has occupied my thinking is the role of disruption in systems change for improved social outcomes. I have pulled out three examples of work that we were exposed to in Salzburg to understand how disruption is being called on, or not, in delivering such change.

What is Disruption for Systems Change?

Christensen and Joseph L. Bower’s HBR article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” (January–February 1995) talk about how the notion of ‘disruption’ for change came from product placement innovation. It came from the positioning of a product in ways that are fundamentally different from the current way of doing things for market share. For example Airbnb was a disruption to holiday accommodation.

What is Systems Change?

 “System change is the emergence of a new pattern of organisation or system structure.”

Anna Birney (2015)

For me there is also a consideration on whether the systems change being undertaken is innovating within the current system or fundamentally working to change or move to a new system. For example, (borrowing from Paul Ryan and the Beechworth Festival of Change) UBER is a disruption of the taxi industry that still operates fundamentally as a company based taxi service where drivers are paid in line with company policy. Disruptions such as calling the driver via an app and the driver using their own personal cars are disruptions within the current system. In contract to this, there is an app in Europe where drivers control the work totally, as if each driver is a micro business. This is a disruption that may be the starting of a new system.

My interest is when such system change has a positive impact on social outcomes for a population experiencing social vulnerability.

Three Examples of ‘Disruption’ from the SGS

The three initiatives I have pulled out of the SGS work come from South Africa, Holland and New Zealand. Firstly I would like to acknowledge the presenters of this work at the seminar, they are:[SF1] 

  1. South Africa: Dr Sebabatso Manaeli, Kopano Matwa Mabaso, Bernadette Moffat
  2. Holland: Karen den Hertog, Thomas de Jager
  3. New Zealand: Toby Westrupp

Following is a summary of what I heard and how I have reflected on the work in accordance with my musings on disruptions. You could gain more details on the work by contacting those doing the work directly. I would be happy to e-connect you if needed.

Three Initiatives Unpacked

South Africa

In South Africa stunting, or impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation (WHO), is the issue challenging children’s weight. One in five children have stunting due to intergenerational poor education, economic and poverty.

In this environment the Grow Great Campaign aims to eradicate hunger and reduce stunting to international standards by 2030 via 4 pillars:

  1. A national social franchise of mother and baby classes (early years education and maternal and child health support) because there is no universal early years system, funding or political will for this in South Africa currently.
  2. Support for community health workers by defining high quality early years care and building capability and capacity that delivers against these standards.
  3. Political advocacy, aligning early years development with economic growth in South Africa, which is the political and population level focus.
  4. Mass media campaign focused on changing cultural norms around breast feeding and balanced diet by:
    1. Using of high-profile supporters for influence, such as South Africa’s first lady.
    1. Focusing on the first 1000 days based on learning from others internationally eg India and Peru who have slowed stunting across their populations.
    1. Working now on how to reduce stunting in an existing environment of poverty by lengthening breast feeding and delaying solids.
    1. National advocacy on the reduction in food waste. There is reportedly enough food for all people across South Africa but large amounts of food is discarded whilst some people do not have enough.

This work is financed by the DG Murray Trust, a strategic social innovator that works towards building a South Africa where people can fulfil their potential. Their focus is on investing in early years.

In this work the social change and associated systems work is not built on the notion of system disruption but rather on creating a system.  The language of the initiative is building early years to foster an environment of sustainability, stability and predictability.

From our perspective in Australia the Social Franchise model may look like disruption. Although there is not doubt that this is innovative, in the funding and policy context for South Africa about system creation, not disruption.


The next example is the Amsterdam Healthy Weight Program which strives for healthy behaviour in a healthy environment to reduce obesity. Led by local government this work was built on shaping collaborative approaches where people from within local government and other stakeholders were invited to take up responsibilities for action. The local council sees their role as curation (similar to the backbone role that we talk about in Australia). This approach has now been taken up as a national model to build a ‘chain of care’ for children who are overweight and obese.

The Amsterdam Healthy Weight Program has 3 pillars:

  1. Increasing active behaviour
  2. Healthy food choices
  3. Enough sleep

This initiative targeted points of system disruption as well as incremental change or quality improvement.

The initial disruption was to stop the ‘unhealthy’ food industry from advertising during sport. Following this overnight ban the  Amsterdam Healthy Weight Program then worked with these industries to support food reformulation for healthy food that could be advertised.

The second point of disruption was to for planning changes so that all infrastructure development in Amsterdam had to include ‘healthier spaces’. This reportedly received push back from city planners who believed that the pressures on planning from tourism and crowd management were the larger issues and it was not possible to cover ‘healthy’ as well. To overcome this the initiative took time to build a shared language, identify commonalities in their agenda and worked to address both needs.

The initiative used incremental improvements to highlight the role of sleep in health management, that getting enough and regular sleep is as important to weight management as the food we eat an our physical activity.  

This approach has delivered a reduction from 21% to 18 % in 0-19 year old children between 2012 and 2018.

Consequently the Amsterdam Healthy Weight Program used a combination of disruption and incremental change in ways that has had real, measurable impact.  

Tai Wananga School, New Zealand

Tai Wananga is a multisite secondary school, funded as a Designated Special Character School[1] in New Zealand.

The role of the Tai Wananga school is to disrupt the traditional approach to education. To guide this the school’s ethos is:

giving life to learning and purpose to life.

There is a belief at the school that learning comes to life when it is purposeful, feeds passion and validates culture and identity.

The model at Tai Wananga was developed to improve Maori health and wellbeing and address ongoing disparity in academic achievement for Maori students .

This school has three pillars of equal importance:

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Health and Wellbeing
  3. Culture and identity

Every child has a goal against each of these areas that child, teachers, parents and significant adults in the child’s life sign onto. If the child is not achieving these all will work together to unpack why and build a way forward.

The school organises its own hours and curriculum, so school starts at 8am with an hour of physical exercise, they have two hours for lunch, so the whole school can eat together and the students get an hour free time, and the school day finishes at 4.30pm.

This is planned and tightly held system disruption for social change.

So, is Disruption needed for Success?

My take out from the above examples is that the use of disruption is best undertaken strategically and consciously. The need for it, however, seems dependent on the ‘place’ that it is happening in for example,  the cultural environment, the level of economic and political stability and the preparedness of leaders such as governments to hold and support the disruption.

The South African example, where there was significant social and economic instability the work was strengthen by not using the language of system disruption but system creation in ways that were sustainable and predictable. In Holland, disruption was targeted and used where the government curating the work had authority to act and where it could be used to achieve the desired outcome. Of note in the area of sleep, which is outside of the local government authority, incremental change was used via collaboration. In the New Zealand example there was a strong authorising environment for the development of Maori culture and self determination in developing culture, health and learning. This could support the school leaders in the disruption being practiced daily.   

So, is disruption needed, well it depends….

[1] Designated Character definition: The Ministry of Education for New Zealand defines a Designated Special Character School as “a state school that has a particular character which sets it apart from ordinary state schools and kura kaupapa Māori. The only students who may enrol at a designated character school are those whose parents accept the particular character of the school.”

 [SF1]Names of presenters

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