The first step to solving an intractable social problem is to understand the system in which it sits. If you don’t, you might find yourself investing in a solution that is ineffective, takes more time or resources to implement, or even makes a problem worse. To reduce the global incidence of HIV, for example, global health leaders must look beyond developing treatments for symptoms; they must address patients’ access to health services, and how culture, economics, and politics affects who benefits in the current system. Taking in the bigger picture—what many of us in the social sector call systems thinking—requires that we understand a system’s many stakeholders, how they interact, and what influences them. Systems thinking means understanding the web of interrelations that create complex problems and rethinking assumptions about how change happens.
This approach isn’t new. Much has been written on thinking systemically, leading systemically, and collaborating systemically. Yet the social sector leaders and grantmakers who are actively integrating the tools and practices of systems thinking into their day-to-day work are few and far between.
So what does it take to move from theory to practice when working on systems?
The David & Lucile Packard Foundation and Management Assistance Group, a nonprofit that supports movement building, partnered together to answer this question. Given our organizations’ history of influencing systems and commitment to impact, we embarked on a project to understand and overcome the barriers to creating system-level change that grantmakers and others in the social sector face. We reviewed more than 175 websites, articles, books, and videos; conducted more than 30 interviews with systems experts and philanthropic leaders; and ultimately identified three ingredients necessary for overcoming common barriers and positively influencing systems:
1. A systems mindset
2. The right tool for the job
3. An understanding of human dynamics
Full details in source: Three Keys to Unlocking Systems-Level Change