The problems we face in the social sector are complex. But we often approach them as if change is linear and predictable. We are meeting complexity with simplicity.
To be more effective, we need to think and work more systemically. If the goal is to change the system, then systems practice is how we get there.
This toolkit will help you and your organisation understand the nature of the problem you’re facing, design effective solutions, act and work systemically, and learn as you go. Together, these tools will help you work more effectively with the complex problems and situations you face day-to-day.
The toolkit includes 8 systems practice tools with illustrative examples and blank templates for you to use.
We’d love to hear your experience working with these tools, and the successes, challenges, and insights you encounter on your systems practice journey. This will help us build and share further learning resources, so please get in touch.
Introduction: What is systems practice and why do we need it?
It has become common to hear problems described as systemic— meaning they are entrenched, structural, intractable. We hear it when discussing the revolving doors of reoffending, the cycles that trap people in generational poverty, and the seemingly relentless increase in carbon emissions.
This apparent intractability of our social problems leads many to question the ways we’ve traditionally worked as a sector:
our approaches to social change
our assumptions and beliefs about how change happens
and our methodologies, tools, and practices for bringing about that change.
The cartoon below gets to the nub of the problem: the tools we use are too often the wrong ones for the job. We are meeting complexity with simplicity.
This is what is happening in the above cartoon—a team generating simple, linear interventions for a complex, sprawling reality within which their interventions will be subsumed. This describes the daily experience of many social change practitioners.
The problems that we ‘face out’ towards are often a bewildering mess of interconnected factors—personal, relational, social, political, cultural—that are virtually impossible to untangle.
This entanglement defies attempts to isolate problems from single causes, making singular solutions unlikely to succeed. This makes it virtually impossible for any single organisation to ‘solve’ a problem.
Yet these simple linear interventions define much of how our sector operates. We reduce complex problems to simplistic solutions in part because it suits our organisational narrative. This isn’t our fault. It’s how the sector works.
Funding is often provided on the promise of such solutions. Many of the tools we use (our strategic plans, logframes, monitoring frameworks) feed into this by assuming an unrealistic level of predictability, and linear relationships between cause and effect that don’t work in complex systems.
We have developed social change practice based on singular, linear solutions implemented by individual organisations working alone towards unachievable mission accomplishment.
The mismatch is not just in the tools but also the mindset that created them—as the cartoon illustrates. To minimise this mismatch, we need to think and act more systemically. We need tools and practices that are better suited to complexity.
The roots of non-systemic thinking
Although it might seem like ‘the new thing’, in fact systems thinking has always been around, just with different language. Da Vinci wrote: “Learn how to see: everything is connected to everything else.”
This idea has underpinned the worldview of different indigenous and pre-industrial cultures over time. However, in many societies, some of that thinking has been lost. We instead became highly proficient at zooming in—separating parts from their wholes and understanding them in extraordinary detail.
This ‘zoomed in’ approach of separation and specialisation has defined our ways of working and thinking. It is the core ‘mental model’ underpinning much of how our society operates, whether in medicine, education, or social change.
It has led to incredible advancements and achievements. But it has also led, whether in healthcare or social science, to separating things from the wholes they belong to and a tendency for siloed thinking and working.
The social sector has traditionally, if subconsciously, applied this mindset of ‘problem separation and solution’ to highly complex social systems that do not operate in that way.
In many fields, people are now trying to zoom out again. To understand not just one part of a system, but those that it connects to, the ways they connect, and the effects they have on each other. ‘Systems thinking’ has become a broad umbrella for such approaches.
It emphasises the multiple and dynamic causal factors around an issue, the structural patterns that keep producing the same issues, and the mindsets, beliefs and worldviews that invariably underpin how and why our systems developed in the way they did. In doing so, it tries to identify more effective ways to work with those systems and affect change within them.
But this is not a case of either/or. It is ‘both/and’. We need multiple mindsets to work with the problems we face.
We need to become adept at moving between the micro and the macro: zooming out to see, and zooming in to act. We need to improve our capacity to work with wholes as well as parts; to understand and improve the relationships between them.
We call this ‘systems practice’. If systems thinking is the mindset and systems change is the goal, then systems practice is how we get there.
Developing our systems practice
Developing systems practice means developing the mindsets, behaviours and skills that allow us to work effectively in highly complex systems.
As we will start to explore in these resources, complex systems are unpredictable, adaptable, and dynamic. This means:
We need to continually challenge ourselves about what we know and assume.
We need to expand our perspectives, to facilitate and collaborate rather than control and compete.
We need to make our planning more responsive and adaptive to the systems we hope to affect.
We need to improve our capacity to work across complex systems with multiple actors, each with their own perspectives, roles and needs.
This developing set of resources is designed to be an accessible, practical introduction to this field, providing a selection of tools, frameworks, concepts and practices to help you on your systems change journey.
We’ve organised these resources using a simple programme cycle of Understand, Design, Act, Learn, which means you can find a systems practice tool for any stage of a programme journey.
We start with ‘Understand’ because the first step in systems practice is to step back and try to understand your situation and the system that is creating it. This is important before going straight into a planning stage.
Except in particular contexts that require urgent action, such as a disaster response, stepping in too quickly will likely mean you are making implicit assumptions about the issue and your intervention, and are perhaps missing important information that could undermine it.
Not paying sufficient attention to this step might not only waste resources, but also lead to a range of unintended consequences.
The tools in Part 1 are designed to help you understand complexity and how it affects your issue and intervention. So, even if you are not currently at the start of a programme cycle, we would recommend you start here.
Some of the tools and frameworks are drawn from the existing systems field and have been adapted or built on for this guide, whilst others have been developed by NPC.
This toolkit is meant as an introduction to systems practice and its key concepts. Space limitations mean it’s not possible in these guides to provide step-by-step instructions for every tool. While some are relatively straightforward, others may require further explanation and support in implementing. In those cases, we include links to further resources. NPC can also provide support for working with these tools if required.
We are keen to hear your experience working with these tools, and any successes, challenges, and insights from your systems practice journey, so please get in touch.
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