Systems thinking and systems change are both buzzwords and often misunderstood words. There are many frameworks, many definitions, and little clarity on how to act once one applies a "systems lens" to a problem. Some systems thinking tells you to find leverage points - places where small interventions have large impact. Others tell you to experiment and explore.
This framework from PolicySolve seeks to bridge different ways of thinking about systems. It is grounded in two decades of experience working on systemic problems and working from the ground up and policymakers down to discover and test solutions.
It is designed to be actionable, including a final section that explores how to work systemically in practical ways.
It was first documented in fall 2022 and has been refined with feedback over the last six months. Please share your thoughts as well!
"We cannot postpone the design of a shared vision of our planetary future. And that cannot happen without dismantling the colonial structures of our present... We cannot lose sight of the structural transformations that are required."
We cannot incrementally tweak our way into a future that is equitable and just. Transformational change is needed. One of the ways we can envision these transformations is through decolonized futures practices - ways of envisioning the future (and its relationship to the past and present) that help us let go of Western ways of knowing.
Interested in learning more? This page on decolonized futures curates a set of resources from leading practitioners, offering you an entry point into a bold new way of understanding and envisioning the future.
This short video (45 minutes) as part of MacMaster University's innovation series will introduce you to the core concepts, tools, and leading thinkers.
Practical Templates for Emergent & Adaptive Work
Engaging in emergent and adaptive strategy is simply hard. It requires different tools than many of us have been trained to deploy, different ways of thinking, and different ways of engaging with others. Let's make it a little bit easier with a few editable, easy to use templates related to a few of PolicySolve's favorite processes to use in emergent settings:
Looking to better understand emergent strategy?
This four page overview the concept and practice of emergent strategy explores how multiple leading thinkers have helped us to understand emergent strategy. It is also the primer for a hands on training by PolicySolve on the "how" of emergent strategy for philanthropy.
Other Systems Change Resources
(NEW) Lost Causal: Debunking Myths About Causal Analysis in Philanthropy
This article debunks the myths that keep philanthropy from exploring and questioning how change is really happening. Co-authored with Julia Coffman (Center for Evaluation Innovation) and Sarah Stachowiak (ORS Impact).
(NEW) Learning Amid Disruption: Bouncing Forward Into a Changed World
The story of Humanity United's transformative journey in 2020, focusing on the disruption as a moment to bounce forward rather than trying to preserve the past. The foundation found themselves rethinking their old ways of seeking to change systems and embracing the future as emergent and unpredictable. Co-authored with Rachel Reichenbach (Humanity United) and Jen Heeg.
(NEW) Strategy Resilience: Getting Wise about Philanthropic Strategy in a Post-Pandemic World
A new articulation of what resilient philanthropic strategy looks like amid disruptions, including how to intentionally manage and distribute power, utilize the power of networks, and maintain attention to systems change. Co-authored with Clare Nolan (Engage R&D) and Peter Waring (Ridgeway Information).
Making Causal Pathways Visible Amid Complexity
An exploration, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, of what it will take to advance philanthropic evaluation related to understanding causal pathways in complex, dynamic settings, an important learning input to the work of social change agents. This exploration is the result of the work of leading methodologists and evaluators worldwide.
As Technology Disrupts Equity, Advocates take Action: Where do Evaluators Fit In?
Advocacy is rapidly evolving for many different reasons, ranging from increasing polarization and existential threats reaching crisis points to shifts in whose voices are heard and how much advocates focus on building power. One of the seismic changes in advocacy that cuts across all of these issues, and influences governance practices more broadly, is the rate of technological advance, which is faster than ever before.
Narrative Change for Health & Racial Equity: Exploring Capacity and Alignment
As part of a participatory study commissioned by The California Endowment, over 40 California and national narrative change leaders participated in exploring different narrative change approaches, their capacity needs, what it means to scale narrative change, and how funders can lean into the work more effectively.
When Collective Impact Has an Impact
A rigorous study co-authored with Sarah Stachowiak to understand when and how collective impact contributes to systems and population change.
Finding the Impact: Methods for Assessing the Contribution of Collective Impact to Systems and Population Change
An exploration of the methods and evaluative approaches that help to understand impact in complex, dynamic systems change settings. Coauthored with Sarah Stachowiak and Terri Akey.
When Backbone Organizations Become the Funder: The Use of Fiscal Intermediaries in the Context of Collective Impact
An exploration of the complexities of backbones taking on the role of distributing funds within a collective impact initiative, including recommendations for strengthening the practice when both roles occur together. Coauthored with Kristen Breckinridge, Ashley Denault, and Chris Marvin.
Strategy Design Amid Complexity: Tools for Designing and Implementing Adaptive Funding Strategies
A set of tools to help foundations design adaptive strategies and ideas for balancing accountability for achieving goals with adaptability throughout the course of an initiative, co-authored with Erica Snow and Tanya Beer.
Assessing and Evaluating Change in Advocacy Fields
An evaluation framework explores emerging ideas and methods for assessing advocacy fields and evaluating advocacy field-building initiatives.
If You Build It, They Will Come: Creating the Space and Support for Real-Time Strategic Learning
An exploration of how to integrate strategic learning into a grant strategy, including supporting learning coaches for 14 of their grantees, co-authored with Phillip Chung, Scott Downes, and Rebecca Kahn.