Impacts that Endure: Using Systems Thinking to Organize Large Scale Collaboration

There are two exceptional systems frameworks that are profoundly helpful for designing change initiatives to address complex issues.  We just shared these classic frameworks with a group of roughly 25 philanthropists at THE EXCHANGE 2018 conference in a session titled The Big Bets of Systems Change: Places to Intervene in the System.

The Iceberg Model for Systems Change is an icon. It frames the bottom line for addressing a complex social and/or environmental problem. And it reminds us that our greatest impacts will result from changing mindsets.  So it goes, if we want to create results (events), different behaviors, relationships, dynamics in current system, we need to start with changing mindsets. This usually means starting with our own! From there, we will be equipped and inspired to design and build different structures – social, economic, technical, etc.  New structures will create new patterns of relationships and behaviors, leading to day-to-day, year-to-year outcomes we want the world to experience.

The Systems Change Framework helps change makers develop strategies and connect with minimal infrastructure to implement aligned, complementary actions across sectors, siloes, disciplines and constituencies.  Here is how we at the Garfield Foundation apply the framework to building a Cancer Free Economy. We started by convening with advocates and funders working on toxics and health to define the system we want to change together. Next we all came up with a shared goal and vision of success – our “North Star.” We then agree on a small set of highest priority interventions and strategies to guide our actions. We organized into teams around the intervention areas and experimented with a set of aligned and complementary actions. As the projects evolved, we designed and implemented a few pieces of infrastructure to support network communication, governance, collective learning and assessment of our progress.

The two frameworks work hand in hand; by reinforcing aligned efforts across a system, everyone’s impacts create waves that will shift long-standing entrenched behaviors underlying the problem, bringing new, visible, and sometimes measurable, signs of change.