guide to systems change

No-Bullshit Systems Change: all you need in just 10 min

Wouldn’t it be nice to synthesize the endless systems change resources – guides, frameworks, rules, mental models, metaphors and conditions – into one definitive guide?

Look no further!

I know you want to do more than read about social change…you want to do it. That’s why this guide is short, but also filled with a summary of all the ideas and tools you need to take effective action.

This blog distills the many definitions of “systems change” into a usable definition (that even a 5-year-old can understand) – so you can focus on doing the work rather than playing Dictionary.

It also gives an overview of systems change metaphors, the four main systems change approaches, shares three examples of systems change initiatives, and explains how to make systemic impact step-by-step.

protest sign

What is systems change?

You’re not alone in noticing that there a huge number of conflicting definitions of “systems change” out there. Luckily, I’ve reviewed dozens of sources and almost all definitions fall into three main categories.

Three ways people define systems change

systems change definitions

#1. A lens for thinking

A way to see complex problems based on systems thinking and complexity theory.

#2. An organizing tactic

A process of bringing together all stakeholders involved with a problem to address it.

#3. A strategic goal

Large-scale or transformational change that occurs as a result of changing the conditions that cause a problem or allow it to persist. Common conditions include rules, policies, practices, relationships, power, mindsets, and use of resources.

A usable definition of “systems change” for practitioners

Leaders in the field need a definition that combines the three definitions above into a succinct statement.

It also needs to include systems thinking, engagement of those involved in the problem, and the purpose of making a change.

Here’s a definition that does all three:

A strategic approach to problem-solving based on systems thinking that focuses on how stakeholders influence a problem’s causes rather than just treating its symptoms.

How to explain systems thinking to a 5-year-old

Even systems change leaders stumble when they have to describe why it’s important to to think in systems to skeptical listeners.

So, here’s how can you put it into everyday language that even a 5-year-old can understand.

explain systems to a child
Just try explaining systems to a 5-year-old…you may be surprised how easy it can be

First, start by describing what a system is and giving a simple example. You could say,

“A system is a group of parts connected for a bigger purpose, like a school (students and teachers working together on learning).”

Second, ask or point out how connections between the parts affect the whole. Systems are all around us in everyday life and even 5-year-olds intuitively understand them. The point of asking questions is to let them point out how individual parts shape the system as a whole, and vice-versa. You could say,

“Does how the teacher treats individual students affect the whole class? And, does the whole class affect each student?”

Finally, bring the first two points together by by talking about becoming a systems thinker.

“Since it’s all connected, we have to consider how small changes may affect everyone.”

Four systems change metaphors explained

Because describing systems is hard, metaphors are often used to illustrate them. Here are the four most common metaphors with the key points you need to know.

systems change metaphors

#1. Iceberg

The iceberg metaphor is meant to show that we can’t see most of a situation’s causes. So, while we focus on real-time events, which is the tip of the iceberg, more foundational causes lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. The model encourages people to look at things “below water” like patterns, beliefs, power dynamics and mindsets.

#2. Root causes

The root causes metaphor is all about finding a condition’s initiating cause. Similar to the iceberg metaphor, what is above ground (the leaves) are obvious, whereas the less obvious cause is unseen below (the roots). The purpose of this metaphor is to get people to distinguish between symptoms and causes.

#3. Swimming in water

Just like the fish who doesn’t know what water is, in this analogy the the philanthropic sector is “swimming” in a system of non-explicit factors that nonetheless drive social change. It is posited that by focusing on non-obvious factors, practitioners can increase their odds of success.

#4. Bathtub

The bathtub analogy is a simple way of describing any stock and flow system. The water is the stock, and the flows are controlled by the faucet (in-flow) and drain (out-flow). The purpose of this system map is to help people go beyond quantity at any given moment, and expand to consider rates of change.

Understanding our own role in social systems

But systems change is more than a metaphor or a definition.

It’s really about embracing complexity and understanding our own role in changing systems.

In this sense, we don’t focus on “the system” because we want to change it. Rather, we consider how we are part of the system to tackle complex problems. This commitment to better understanding of our situation, ourselves, and how our decisions affect the whole can help us make better decisions and avoid errors.

This sentiment was perfectly captured by systems pioneer Jay Wright Forrester:

“Very often people are just role players within a system. They are not running it; they are acting within it. This has not been a popular idea with people who think they are in charge…but in fact, unless they are knowledgeable in systems, they will fall into a pattern of doing what the system dictates. If they understand the system, they can alter that behavior.”

What are the four main systems approaches?

Even after people share an understanding of what systems change means, there are many different systems approaches. Many funders and think tank reports define systems change as just one of these approaches, but each has its own wisdom.

The most successful systems change initiatives usually combine two or more of these systems approaches.

systems change approaches

#1. Collaboration-based

Bringing stakeholders together to find shared understanding or shared goals. This approach focuses on changing relationships to affect the functioning of the system as a whole. Common approaches include Collective Impact initiatives, systems change efforts of funder collaboratives, and cross-sector partnerships.


#2. Information-based

Making information more accessible and transparent, thereby allowing stakeholders to make informed decisions. This approach focuses on changing the feedback loops that affect the system as a whole. This approach includes tools like public sector dashboards, outcome reporting, and dissemination of evaluation results.

#3. Knowledge-based

Increasing the number of people thinking about the system as a whole and their role in it. This approach focuses on ideas, mindsets, and complex problem-solving tools. It also helps people see how individual and collective action shapes overall system functioning. This approach includes online courses that teach how to solve complex problems.

#4. Capacity-based

Giving more people the ability to participate in the system or in the problem-solving process. This approach focuses on inclusion and how engagement shapes system performance. This approach can be done by creating representative stakeholder groups, changing membership on decision-making bodies, and large-group convening.

What are examples of systems change?

The easiest way to understand systems change is to see it in action. Here are three examples that go beyond program-based change.

#1. Truckers Against Trafficking

Founded in 2009, Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) aims to reduce domestic sex trafficking. According to the founders, the big idea behind the initiative was: What if truckers could be part of the solution?

Their theory of change was is that “equipping members of the trucking industry to spot and report potential signs of sex trafficking can lead to the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of traffickers and freedom for victims.”

TAT takes a holistic view, tapping into several of the main approaches:


TAT intentionally created a network of “truckers against trafficking” by brining together trucking companies, state trucking associations, law enforcement agencies, and travel plaza staff.


TAT educates people on the realities of trafficking and provides practical things people can do about it. It also provides a mindset the problem is traffickers, not “prostitution” per se. Through this reframing, TAT helps move people from ignoring the issue to seeing their role in addressing it.


TAT’s approach is not about scaling a program. Rather, it is about “equipping and mobilizing partners to use their expertise, resources, and power to fuel the movement.” TAT has expanded the capacity of partners to act, including trucking schools, state departments of motor vehicles, and bus companies.

#2. The Paradox Prize

Created by The Fund for Our Economic Future back in 2019, The Paradox Prize was a Shark-Tank-like competition to come up with innovative solutions transportation challenges for employers and potential workers.

Due to development patterns and many fractured public transportation systems in northeast Ohio, getting to work without a car was often impossible. Hence the paradox: if you don’t have a car, you can’t work; and if you can’t work, you can’t afford a car.

The Paradox Prize uses several approaches simultaneously:


By giving away over $1 million, The Paradox Prize incentivized innovation among partners who many not have otherwise worked together. For example, a clergy organization partnered with a manufacturing nonprofit to use church vans (which had previously only been used on Sundays) to connect workers in Cleveland to jobs in the suburbs.


The Fund purposely tried to give participants a systems thinking lens. Employers were pushed to see how their shift schedule synced up (or didn’t) with public bus route schedules. Local busing companies also came to see how their local routes connected (or didn’t) to other regional carriers, especially along high-demand commuting patterns.


The advisory committee intentionally brought together a diverse and cross-sector group of representatives. Although their purpose was explicitly about selecting Paradox Prize winners, the other purpose was to help these partners develop relationships and a shared understanding of how they could move beyond traditional approaches to address the problem.

#3. Built for Zero

Although Community Solutions had been extremely successful housing over 100,000 Americans, it realized that no community it was working with had actually been able to end homelessness.

The first problem, they realized, was that no one actor was responsible for or could end homelessness on their own.

The second problem was that many support services were acting on a once-a-year count of the homeless population when in fact the number of homeless people changed nightly.

As a result of these realizations, Community Solutions created Built for Zero, a movement of over 90 communities committed to using data to reach functional zero (a state where homelessness is continuously rare and brief). Built for Zero communities use several approaches:


Instead of fragmented groups that provide support in silos, Built for Zero communities use an integrated, command center team.


Whereas people used to operate based on a yearly count of the aggregate homeless population, Built for Zero uses tools with real-time, by-name data.


Partners each have a role to play, but they all need to keep their eye on the big idea, which is achieving functional zero. To do this, Built for Zero uses community measurement. This helps move people away from evaluating individual program success, which can’t solve the problem alone, to focusing on community success.

Copy the thinking behind the initiative

The point of sharing these examples isn’t so they can be replicated. Indeed, one insight about systems change is that it needs to fit into the unique conditions that surround the problem. Every community is different.

What one wants to replicate is the kind of thinking that created these successful systems change initiatives. In other words, systems change requires a mindset that can determine which specific changes one is capable of making in a local ecosystem at a given time to create the desired effect.

systems change definition

How do you create systems change?

Many social sector guides are unnecessarily prescriptive on how to do systems change, ignoring the fact that complex systems themselves are always changing and that appropriate strategies are informed by objectives and local conditions, not one-size-fits-all methodologies.

But, by abandoning the prescriptive lens, it’s also possible to adopt a variety of iterative processes designed for complexity. They share a focus on gaining holistic understanding with a range of tools.

They’re also non-ideological, trans-disciplinary, and flexible. In most cases, the process won’t be linear. Rather, as you think and reason, analyze and synthesize, you’ll jump around to get a holistic picture.

A step-by-step guide to making systemic impact

In my online course, we generally follow a seven-step framework:

  1. Get clear sight with a complex problem-solving frame
  2. Establish a secure base of operation
  3. Gain a deep understanding of the problem
  4. Create an interactive model of the problem
  5. Develop an impact strategy
  6. Create an action plan and implement
  7. Embed systemic solutions

Of course, each of these steps involves testing to see what works and consistently evaluating your process and progress toward systemic change.

I could go on longer than 10 minutes, but that’s everything you need to get started!