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Systems Thinking for Social Change: Review

As readers of Solutions, we are well aware of the large social, economic, and environmental challenges that face us. Einstein told us we will need to use new ways of thinking to solve these problems. One of those ways comes from system dynamics.1 At its heart is a new way of thinking, dubbed "Systems Thinking" by Barry Richmond.2

To many, systems thinking may not seem like a new way of thinking, as most people have been exposed to the basic concepts. However, knowing about it is very different from integrating it into your thinking and behavior every day—what Barry Richmond dubbed being a "Systems Citizen."3 The latter takes commitment, guidance, and a lot of practice.

At its heart, systems thinking has four basic elements:

  • Look at the whole rather than its parts
  • The state of any system is determined by its accumulations
  • Cause and effect relationships are circular, not linear (known as feedback)
  • Time delays are inherent and lead to counterintuitive results

Feedback itself comes in two basic types: (i) reinforcing, which can generate either virtuous or vicious cycles, and (ii) balancing, which stabilizes a system, making it resistant to change. Most successful systems have strong balancing feedbacks that push back when you try to change the system, often after a time delay, so a remediation may seem to be effective, but its effectiveness turns out to be short lived. Or, you may successfully change the system by pushing it, so you try to push it again. However, each successive time you push it, the change is less effective. A simple example of the latter would be using credit card debt to live beyond your means. Assuming a rational credit universe, each successive credit card you procure will have a lower and lower limit until you are cut off completely.

These ideas make it clear that social change, while necessary, is a difficult enterprise. Maybe if we focus on the issues through a systems thinking lens, we can make it easier. David Peter Stroh does exactly this in his excellent book, Systems Thinking for Social Change. I was pleasantly surprised by both the practicality and applicability of his method.

Stroh does not assume you are familiar with systems thinking, and carefully introduces you to the concepts in his well-written introduction. If you have heard of "systems archetypes," introduced in The Fifth Discipline,4 but have not yet worked out what they are or how to use them, this book is for you. Stroh carefully describes eight of them, giving them the more accessible name "systems stories," including clear examples of how they arise, how to recognize them, and what we can learn from them. The eight stories covered are reinforcing feedback, balancing feedback, fixes that backfire (or fail), shifting the burden, limits to growth, success to the successful, accidental adversaries, and the bathtub analogy. He also briefly describes the other five commonly occurring systems stories. Throughout the rest of the book, he refers to these eight, detailing how they apply to real social change initiatives, as well as ways to escape them when they are working against you. In this section, Stroh also introduces us to the dangers of looking only at our immediate responsibilities and trying to improve our performance without consideration of the whole. He makes the point a number of times that organizations that work in the social sphere have limited budgets and resources, so they need to work together to find the best way to meet the overall objective. In my opinion, the methods in this book are not limited to these organizations, as most businesses have these same budgetary and resource restrictions.

The meat of this book is in chapters five through ten, where Stroh describes the change management framework that he co-created with Michael Goodman. Several cases were introduced earlier to help explain the systems stories. In this section, Stroh not only explains the process and the rationale behind it, but walks us through what it was like for participants involved in these social change case studies.

The framework has four stages. The first stage, called "building a foundation for change," starts by identifying all of the key stakeholders and getting them involved in the process. Stroh is clear that you need to be as inclusive as possible so you do not miss an important constituent. It is then necessary to establish common ground in terms of what everyone hopes to achieve and where they think they are now. The facilitator then helps them build capacity for systems thinking with a focus on collaboration. This stage is consistent with other participatory modeling frameworks.


Glen Forde / Creative Sustainability. An exhibition on systems thinking literature in Espoo, Finland.

The second stage, named "facing current reality," is where people start to feel uncomfortable, as it is necessary to look at the system as a whole to both understand why it behaves the way it does and what each person's role is in its behavior. This stage is consistent with both participatory modeling and traditional systems analysis.

The third stage, called "making an explicit choice," does not just mean making a choice between many different options (which would be the next stage of traditional systems analysis). Instead, it is necessary to build a case for the current system, including the payoffs of the current system and the cost to change. This is then compared to the case for the changed system, including its benefits and the costs of not changing. Solutions (and strategies) are then generated that, as much as possible, meet both short-term and long-term goals (with an emphasis on the long term). As Stroh explains, the goal is to bring the explicit choice "to life through a vision that illuminates what people feel called to or deeply wish to create."

The final stage, named "bridging the gap," is all about getting from here to there successfully. As a systems thinker, one of the most important parts is to change the casual relationships in the system to support the new goals. This also requires helping people change their mental models, keeping people informed, and continuous monitoring and learning throughout the change (and afterwards). The last part of the book contains more detailed information on this process.

A strong message throughout this book is the idea that we are the ones who unintentionally perpetuate the very systems we wish to change. When viewed through the lens of systems thinking, it is easier to see how our actions, while seeming to have positive and direct consequences in the short term, either undermine our efforts to change or create other consequences in the longer term that work against us.

The classic example of this is fixes that backfire (or fail). In this story, we take immediate action that alleviates the symptom of the problem in the short run. In doing so, we undermine our ability to solve the fundamental problem so must keep resorting to fixing the symptom, further undermining our ability to solve the problem. A common example would be to borrow money to pay the interest on another debt. While this solves your short-term need of servicing the original debt, you now have a larger debt and two interest payments, making it harder for you to pay off the original debt. Stroh points to the pressure to use incarceration more frequently for criminal behavior, thus taking criminals off the streets (relieving a symptom). However, these increased populations in prison will eventually be released (delay). They are typically unprepared to productively reenter society, so they turn to crime again. This leads to more pressure to use incarceration as a means to reduce crime. The fundamental solution presented by Stroh is to invest in building strong communities that are not breeding grounds for despair and criminal behavior.

Another example is accidental adversaries. In this story, Party A does everything possible to meet their objectives, and Party B does the same. However, Party A’s actions undermine Party B’s success and vice-versa—both unintentionally. Stroh provides an example from the Iowa public education system where the actions of the Department of Education and the regional education agencies worked against their common goal of delivering quality education. In this situation, the Department of Education would independently roll out new programs, which felt like progress to them. However, the regional agencies did not have the resources for the number of new programs created, so would customize them to fit their current program, or ignore them altogether. While this undermined the state’s initiatives, it allowed them to feel they were still succeeding. The solution is straightforward: sit the two parties down, and help them see that they are both unintentionally perpetuating the problem, and that they can work together to better achieve their common goal.

Stroh is candid about both the positive and negative responses from participants. In particular, there is often pushback against the scope of the process, "My encouragements to slow down and reflect more deeply and to consider their own roles, however unintentional, in perpetuating the current system, were confusing to design members who viewed their charter solely in terms of rapidly producing recommendations about how others should change. A few chose to leave the project at this point…"

Note that this book is about the process that begins once you have an organization interested in creating change. It does not address, nor does it purport to address, the difficult task of engaging someone in this process. If you want to end world hunger, who do you approach to start this process and how do you engage them? The examples in this book all come from communities, regions, and states. I recommend starting with the sound advice: "Think globally, act locally." It is also not always possible to engage all key stakeholders in the process. Without giving suggestions or examples, Stroh points out that in this case you must find a way to work around those who will not participate.

I am impressed by the level of success this method has achieved in several social change initiatives. If you are involved in a social change initiative or you wish to effect social change, Stroh’s book is an excellent place to start.


  1. Forrester, JW. Industrial dynamics: a major breakthrough for decision makers. Harvard Business Review, 36(4), 37-66 (1958).
  2. Richmond, B. Systems Thinking: Four Key Questions. High Performance Systems Inc. (1987).
  3. Richmond, B. In Search of a Clear Picture For Unifying our Community of Practice. Keynote Presentation, Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling Conference, July 1, 2002, Durham, NH [online]
  4. Senge, PM. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. (Currency Doubleday, New York City, 1990).

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