Systems Thinking for Social Change

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on December 14, 2015

Whenever I sink myself into systems thinking, I realize it should be called systems being. As David Stroh describes in his new book Systems Thinking and Social Change integrating systems awareness has spiritual, emotional, and physical as well as mental implications. It is a way of understanding the world. And it is core for anyone working on large systems change and transformation.15-12-14 Systems Stroh

As a formal field of study, the origin of systems thinking is often associated with the pioneering work in the 1950s of Kenneth Boulding and Ludwig von Bertalanffy. During the following decade Jay Forrester at MIT founded system dynamics. Peter Senge, also at MIT, popularized “systems thinking” in his 1990- book The Fifth Discipline. Peter and David were co-founders of Innovation Associates where they broadened application of systems approaches to business in particular. Subsequently, David has developed a valued focus on social change. So his book draws from over three decades of deep work in a wide variety of arenas in addition to business, such as homelessness, education, health care, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am pleased to see David’s new book, both as an accomplishment of a valued colleague and for the support it provides for those working on social change issues. Systems thinking is described as the ability to understand the interactions between elements (e.g. organizations, factors) in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose. It is associated with mapping interdependencies among a few core elements that yield enormous insight into more complex interactions. These include causal relationships (a change in A leads to a change in B), time delays (change almost always takes more time than anticipated), and feedback loops (changes that amplify or correct existing conditions).

The big contribution of the mapping is that it helps people make three shifts that David identifies:

Operationally, this is the path to understanding important non-intuitive impacts of policies and actions, popularly referred to as unintended consequences. David describes system archetypes – dynamic patterns of behavior found across diverse issues that limit people’s abilities to realized desired outcomes. There are only a few of these, including “success to the successful” that explains why the rich get richer, the “accidental adversaries” archetype that explains how promising relationships unwittingly can deteriorate into adversarial ones, and “tragedy of the commons” that is the story of depleting a collective resource that no party feels individually responsible for maintaining. Along with an assessment of underlying mental models and system purpose, system archetypes form the building blocks for understanding deeper complexity.15-12-14 Systems Stroh Figure 7.1 - TAPI FTB

A Systems Map:  Although mass incarceration is a quick fix to people’s fear of being victimized by crimes committed by people of color (B1), It creates unintended consequences that further increase these fears over time (R2 and R3). Modified from diagram developed by Seed Systems for Open Society Institute

David subsumes these systems thinking insights into the larger challenge of realizing social change. Without that bigger change perspective, mapping is simply an artifact without relevance. David goes into depth about systems thinking as a way to bring people together to collaboratively realize change. The mapping is simply a way that helps them become system thinkers, and thereby take much more impactful action.

A four-stage change process integrating systems thinking is described with rich experiences that people can recognize as reflecting change interventions more generically. Systems thinking helps participants to see the bigger picture that they are part of, and to understand their relationships and the impacts of their behaviors so they can take more effective collective action. Rather than expert-based analysis associated with reports, David emphasizes the value of participating stakeholders undertaking their own analysis to deepen understanding of their situation…and to develop their overall capacity to think systemically. Detailed guidance is provided for doing this. Also included in his process are powerful questions and tools beyond mapping that enable people to engage in catalytic conversations and make more effective and fulfilling choices.

One major goal of the mapping is to identify “leverage points”: particularly sensitive places where modest action can produce great and sustainable system-wide improvement. He reduces Donella Meadows’ well-known list of 12 such leverage points to four that he’s found particularly useful and achievable in his social change work:

The last section of the book is particularly relevant to those working with complexity when something new must be created that is beyond historic experience. David introduces and applies two core systemic theories of change: one that amplifies small successes, and another that corrects a shortcoming and achieves a goal. The mapping provides a visual way to present alternative actions, deepen discussion about their possible impacts, select actions to advance, and integrate and sequence these over time.

Perhaps the greatest value of the book is the integration of long practice and diverse experiences. David has great illustrations of his points. He is bullish about systems thinking, but also brings in tools and approaches not directly associated with it. And he addresses real challenges, such as when people cannot align. It’s a great guide for those who want to integrate systems thinking approaches into their social change work.

Reflections by the Author:

Steve and I met each other nearly 20 years ago because of our shared commitment to multi-stakeholder collaboration in support of social change. Steve’s insights offer powerful ways in which stakeholders from public, private, and nonprofit sectors across developing and developed countries can come together in service of a shared aspiration. My book provides a complementary perspective by helping people develop a shared understanding of current reality, and particularly why that reality persists despite people’s best efforts to change it. Developing this understanding and identifying high leverage interventions are the goals of thinking systemically. When diverse stakeholders learn to think as well as convene systemically, they deepen their capacity to collaborate for impactful and sustainable social change.




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