What We Mean When We Say “Systems Change”

And how we put related concepts into practice

— By Motaz Attalla, Jennifer Berman, Jessica Conrad, Ruth Rominger, and Eleni Sotos

What type of system do we focus on in our work? What do we mean when we say systems change, anyway? How are these terms relevant to our work as a foundation? And what do they require of us and our partners, in practice, to address the complex crises threatening our lives and world?

In the conversation captured below, edited for clarity, I explore these questions with a few members of our program team in the context of our purpose to support changemakers seeking transformational solutions to complex social and environmental problems. Full of associational thinking and analogy, the conversation seeks to clarify terms and describe the practices we use in our approach to accelerate intentional systems change.

For those who are less familiar with our ethos, approach, and programs, here are a few broad strokes comments about our work by way of context. Across all of our program areas, we seek to work in collaboration and in partnership with our grantees. We create space for building trusting relationships and a shared understanding of the terrain in which our work together plays out. We also seek to design processes that meet both our partners’ and our needs throughout the lifecycle of our work together.

Through our programs, we support the development of networks like the RE-AMP Network and the Cancer Free Economy Network with technical assistance from our team, access to consultants, and grants for establishing network leadership, strategic action agendas, collaborative capacity, and distributed network infrastructure. We also make grants to practitioners to develop applied systems thinking and analytical tools, trainings, and experiments that contribute to building the field of systems change practice. Through these collaborations, we seek to create impact far greater than we could ever hope to create on our own. In the dialogue below, we elaborate on many of these practices.

This piece is Part One in a two-part piece in which we hope to help clarify the language and practice of systems change. You can discover more about our motivations for producing the piece here.

— Jessica

Jessica: Thanks, everyone, for coming together for a conversation about what we mean when we say “systems change” and our practices. We all know why we think this conversation is valuable, so let’s go ahead and jump right in! The word “system” is thrown around all the time, and people use it in reference to so many different things. What type of system do we focus on in our collaborative work with partners?

Ruth: Yes, the word “system” can be used in reference to many different types of systems, from simple to complicated to complex, including everything from mechanical systems to complex social, environmental and economic systems.

When we use the terms systems change or systems approach we are talking about complex adaptive systems, which are made up of many parts that all do different things and connect and influence each other in multiple ways. Through their web of relationships, the parts of the system create a whole that is itself different from any single part. This is where the common phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes from. I would add that the whole is not necessarily greater in the sense of being better than, but that it’s different in kind from any of the parts themselves.

“There’s no love in a carbon atom, no hurricane in a water molecule, no financial collapse in a dollar bill.” — Peter Dodds, complexity scientist

Motaz: There are two examples I use when I think about systems.

The first is that I remember Eleni once went to a meeting, and when she described our approach to someone she met there, she said, “You know, we focus on systems change. That’s our guiding strategy.”

To which the person replied, “Oh, great. Us too!”

Eleni inquired, “Tell me more.”

And the person said, “We’re focused on changing the foster care system.”

We often hear people talk about changing the criminal justice system, the health care system, the education system, the foster care system. Yet I think when people name those systems, they’re generally referring to the current institutions and regulations that form the structural layer of a sector (or system). The focus is on how it operates to deliver a service or function and, naturally, impact a lot of people’s lives. But these institutions and regulations aren’t the system in its totality. When we consider a system, we look both deep and wide. We look at the structural layer — organizations, policies, laws, and other forms of infrastructure — and we also look beneath and within the structures at the mindsets, values, and beliefs that individuals or groups of individuals hold (known as mental models). As the deepest layer of a system, mental models are the bedrock upon which a system is built. The most important part of this is looking at the relationships between all these different elements — that’s where the real story is.

The Iceberg Model — graphic from the School of Systems Change

When we at Garfield think about systems, we think across all the layers of the Iceberg Model and about how they influence each other. We think about mindsets and paradigms, specific behavioral patterns, as well as relevant structures, regulations, and institutions (many of which might exist beyond a given sector or field or institution), that all underlie a given event.

The second example I use when I talk about systems is really just business. To make and sell a thing you have to consider a whole ecosystem of factors: suppliers, licenses, regulations, financing, branding, marketing, operations, technology, relationships, et cetera. Even though businesses tend to have a narrow measure of impact — like their financial bottom line, maybe personal fulfillment, and, for social enterprises, a non-financial social or environmental objective goal — the process is often sprawling and dynamic to varying degrees. It often has many different moving parts. Which is all to say, it’s complex and requires a systemic mindset.

So a systems approach isn’t this fancy thing. It’s just seeing and working with complexity. I often think about how the Silicon Valley trope around new technologies disrupting a sector (or the world!) tends to lionize technology and the people who create it, overlooking the fact that change is always dependent on a set of broader conditions. Some of the greatest contemporary disruptors — take ride-sharing apps as an example — have had to rely on and invest heavily in creating a regulatory environment that will allow them to do what they do. That work happens through campaigns, advocacy, litigation, and goes way beyond the innovative ideas or the code. Disruption requires a lot of work behind the scenes to pick at the many, many different layers of the status quo. And then there’s the ripple effects of disruption, which is another characteristic of complex systems change.

Ruth: In the context of our work, we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, we’re going to change this system.” We’re not talking about a hospital system or a computer system. We’re talking about complex layers and relationships that together have particular qualities and behaviors. When we talk about changing a system, our focus, or subject of inquiry, is the outcome we want to change. We focus on what is creating the current problematic outcome and then define the outcome we want to see. What is the ultimate result we want? So instead of saying we are working on the healthcare system, we might say, how do we create health and wellbeing for everyone? This way, we look at as many different factors as possible that affect people’s health, not just the formal health care system.

We focus on changing behavioral patterns and relationships to create different outcomes. This means, no matter what the specific problem is, it’s about creating different outcomes that improve the health of people and the planet. When we say something that grand, it really involves looking at all the different factors that create an unhealthy planet and society. We look at the interaction of all the layers across the Iceberg — the mental models, underlying structures, trends or patterns, and events — and how they add up to declining ecosystem health and ruptures within the fabric of society. With this framing, we can then look for what might be possible to change by aligning multiple actions among many stakeholders.

Our projects take on issues within systems that are in and of themselves very complex — like the problem of human-made toxic substances that degrade our health. Of course no one set out with the intention of making chemical products that would accumulate in our systems and make people, and whole populations, sick. People believed that they were trying to meet a need or improve existing products. People either weren’t aware of the unintended consequences of the chemistry, or didn’t take them into consideration. The combination of these consequences has resulted in a problem for the health of people and other living things on the planet.

Problems like this require systems thinking. We need to look at how all of those decisions have added up over time to this problem that no one party in the system could create alone. This is why we use methods that have been evolving in the field of systems change practice to influence behavior at multiple levels within a system to affect social change.

Eleni: I understand your point about unintended consequences in the context of toxic chemicals, and I also want to acknowledge some systems are created that yield intentional outcomes in which there is little or no concern for the harm created. For example, white people very intentionally created slavery, redlining, and many other forms of oppression. Racial inequality is absolutely intentional. In this case our system is producing an intended outcome.

Jessica: A very important point, thank you for raising it, Eleni. I think we’ve begun wading into territory I suggest we explore next, which is what “systems change” means in the context of our work. What else might you add? And others?

Ruth: In the field, the term “systems change” has become a term of art. It refers both to the practices and frameworks people use, and to a shared understanding of how complex systems change. We don’t use it as a generic term for any type of social change activity.

Jen, how would you describe how “systems change” is being used in the field?

Jen: The term is being used by lots of different people in different ways. In my mind, systems change is about seeing how multiple influences — which we typically think of and respond to as separate entities — build on each other and create unintended consequences or outcomes. It’s about understanding how the underlying connections, dynamics, and patterns within a system create the current realities we experience. And it’s about working to change those underlying dynamics, instead of just responding to what is right in front of us.

Systems change isn’t something that one or two organizations can do on their own. The practice requires multiple organizations with different perspectives to come together to create a shared understanding of the current reality (at a deeper level), agree on where they collectively want to go, and where and how to intervene to change the underlying dynamics.

Ruth: And it’s a field of practice now.

Jen: Right. The field of systems change is a collection of tools, methodologies, frameworks, and mindsets that people are applying in their work to co-create different outcomes. Systems change is both a process and an outcome.

Eleni: I would just add that, taken together, the theory and the practice that we’re talking about are now seen as a change process. It’s also important to note that use of the term “systems change” is everywhere now. So many organizations say that their mission is to foster, fund, or in some other way advance systems change. Yet many organizations seem to believe they can do it on their own without trying to understand how their work connects to the larger system, or without working to develop a shared understanding of the system’s dynamics with other stakeholders.

Jen: Yes, in our work systems change means working across multiple organizations. It means being able to “see the system” from multiple perspectives, from multiple angles, and at multiple levels to create a more comprehensive picture of the system together than any single organization (or group of organizations) might have on its own.

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Jessica: We’re already talking a little bit about what it means to act systemically. Let’s go there. What does it mean to put theory into practice — to act systemically?

Motaz: In some ways I’m like a fish being asked about water with this question, especially in the context of my work with the Cancer Free Economy Network. It can be hard to take a step back and see that a given thing we’re doing is a way of acting systemically when we’re in the weeds with it.

So as I was thinking about this, I found myself checking against how my family and I operate at home. It’s a complex emergent environment, where there are different actors and pressures and things to be solved or changed, especially during COVID time. In my family, the hard part about integrating multiple perspectives, as Jen just shared, is making space for the kids’ perspectives. This is an analogy. For me to act systematically at home is to really think about their perspectives. If one of my kids, who is very young, does something really disruptive, to act systemically I need to recognize that she’s just trying to survive. So that tantrum, or that disruption, is an expression of something deeper.

To act systemically is to recognize the conditions that the kids are in. It’s to recognize that the conditions are making them act a certain way. It’s about going deeper into the mindsets or maybe the underlying structures and patterns that cause an event (in this case the disruption) to happen. So much of the pressure I’m experiencing around the event of the systems breakdown in the family — parent burnout, kid boredom, et cetera — has to do with the wider problems of the education system, which are structural.

One point of intervention for us as a family is to organize with other families within the public school system to co-create new solutions for childcare and education during the pandemic. At the same time, we can experiment with a new arrangement of who does chores — what makes sense for who to do and when — so we can take better advantage of our scarce time and energy resources. Acting systemically might mean creating shared agreements and checking in every few days to see if it still makes sense to continue the agreement. Essentially creating new structures.

All of this has parallels to the kind of systems work that happens in the domain of the social sector. Acting systemically in this context is about engaging different voices, thinking across the multiple levels of an issue, taking a learning orientation, leaning into a more iterative and experimental approach. It involves checking regularly to see if our practices are still relevant, if a process is starting to create different outcomes in the direction of a desired future, and so on. This is really what acting systemically looks like at the operational level.

For me, the mindset shift around acting systemically comes down to the way we relate to problems that seem insurmountable. Rather than throw our hands up, the shift lies in recognizing that a problem may have to do with a very deeply rooted structure, or a very deeply rooted trauma, or a centuries-old mindset. To act systemically is to not go around a problem, and to not resign to just surviving it. To act systemically is to commit to surviving the short-term expression of a problem, agree on a short-term fix, and then engage with the longer-term game. It may be to recognize that the time horizon for change might be two generations! And if it’s a two-generation-long problem, then you program accordingly. To act systemically is to not give up in the face of what seems fundamentally insurmountable.

Ruth: Some of what resonates for me within your comments, Motaz, is that acting systemically is about being able to see the context in which events are unfolding and understand that the context has evolved over time as a result of many different influences. This helps us realize that we can affect the system (or the current problem) if we understand that it is made up of all of these different dynamics. When carefully considering the context — what’s influencing the problem or the situation you have — so many new options for intervening become available.

Jen: For me acting systemically is all about “perspective taking” at different levels. It’s about being able to take the perspective that what we are experiencing now is actually the symptom of something much bigger and deeper and longer-term that’s gotten us to this place.

The school analogy is a really good analogy, Motaz. I think there’s a tendency to think, both as individuals and as organizations, that a problem is “up to us” as individual actors to figure out, and that once we figure it out, we will know what the solution is. In an organizational context, we might think our organization knows best what to do, and we’re going to convince everyone that they should jump on our bandwagon. Acting systemically, on the other hand, means partnering with others to bring in multiple perspectives and harness collective intelligence. That way we can better understand both what is currently happening, and that bigger context you’re talking about, Ruth.

Eleni: I would also add that traditional philanthropy often encourages what you first described, Jen, by asking organizations what distinguishes their work from other organizations. This incentivizes individual action that appears promising, innovative et cetera, however it doesn’t serve systems change, due to its separation from all the other work going on alongside it. The work of systems change requires everyone in the ecosystem — funders, advocates, practitioners, all of us — to change our mindsets and approaches.

Jessica: Thanks, everyone, for the rich discussion and reflection. There’s so much here — and so much more to probe. But to bring this first part of our conversation to a close, I’ll briefly emphasize a few key ideas that surfaced:

  • Our work focuses on complex adaptive systems that are made up of many different parts, or elements, and the relationships among them.
  • We think of systems change as both a process and an outcome. (An idea our colleague Anna Birney with Forum for the Future has also explored.)
  • We believe that the process of advancing systems change involves working together in diverse groups to gain an understanding of a system’s many layers — mental models, structures, patterns, and events — paying special attention to the relationships between them. It involves coming together around a shared purpose (like health and wellbeing for all) and spotting places of high-leverage to focus collaborative action.
  • Acting systemically involves the practice and participatory process of taking the larger context of an issue into account. It’s about acknowledging our own assumptions or blind spots and viewing the issue at hand through multiple different perspectives for deeper and wider understanding.

In Part Two, we’ll explore how acting systemically translates into the structures and programs we create at the Garfield Foundation to support our partners and grantees and develop the field in service of systems change.

For now, as always, we are eager to hear what these reflections bring up for you. What examples from your own work shine a light on different ways of describing and practicing systems change? We invite you to share your ideas about what systems change means to you in the comments below so that we might all work toward greater clarity together.

Garfield Foundation team members who contributed to this piece include:

Motaz Attalla, Program Officer & Technical Advisor
Jennifer Berman, Partnerships & Training Officer
Jessica Conrad, Strategic Communications Manager
Ruth Rominger, Collaborative Networks Program Director
Eleni Sotos, Senior Program Officer

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