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Spheres of Systems Change

What is the Spheres of Systems Change Model?

The Spheres of Systems Change model illustrates different dimensions of change within a system (the spheres) and how changes dynamically interact across those dimensions. It encourages you to be aware of cause and effect relationships within and between each of the spheres, responding and adapting to those changes as you move through them.

How it works

Our Spheres of Systems Change model sets out eight spheres in which change needs to happen for that change to become systemic.

The model draws on and expands another model, Bronfenbrenner’s socio-ecological systems model (right), which describes the ways that different systems interact on a child’s life to influence their development.

This version has five levels, but other versions simplify this to three:

  • Micro level: individual and family
  • Meso level: local community and institutions
  • Macro level: wider society and culture

(In Bronfenbrenner’s original model, ‘exosystem’ refers to culture, mass media, societal behaviours, and the ‘macrosystem’ refers to policies. Other versions of the model combine this exosystem dimension with the macrosystem, which we have also done in the interests of simplicity.)

As illustrated by the arrows in the diagram, these systems interact with and influence each other.

Our Spheres of Systems Change model takes this concept of interacting systems at different levels and applies it to the process of managing systemic change.

We have expanded the three micro/ meso/ macro levels to eight spheres, which represent different dimensions of change: Internal, Behavioural; Relational; Organisational; Collective; Infrastructural; Political; Societal. Each of these spheres is explained in more detail below.

Although Bronfenbrenner’s model was created to understand influences on a child’s development, the principles of the model do not only apply to children. They describe how individuals are shaped and changed by a range of influences– from familial to societal, and how those levels interact with each other. These concepts are fundamental to understanding how change in systems happens.

At the centre of Bronfenbrenner’s model is the individual. In our model, the starting point is the person­– you– initiating a change process. Around you are the spheres, or dimensions, that will be involved and affected by that change process.

We are all in a continual cause-effect relationship with the systems around us– whether local, organisational or societal. We are affected by them, and we affect them– especially if we are seeking to bring about change.

The model emphasises that change in complex systems is a dynamic and two-way process: changes in one area lead to changes in another, which then cause further changes in adjacent ones, and back again.

These concepts echo the core characteristics of complex systems, explored in Tools 1 and 2, such as interdependence and unpredictability. The model encourages you to be aware of each of these spheres within your change process, and to continually sense and adapt to interacting changes within them as your process unfolds.

The levels & the spheres

This section describes in further detail the eight spheres of systems change and the levels they sit within.

Micro level

Our model starts with the micro level. Systems change tends to focus on the outer levels– the meso and the macro– and undervalue the micro.

We tend to think of both systems and change as external to ourselves, as something we are trying to do to or for a group of people. Through this toolkit, we have sought to emphasise that we ourselves­­­– and our organisations– are the first spheres of that change.

Indeed, NPC’s 2018 publication on systems change begins in Chapter 1 (‘Know Yourself’) with a similar call to “turn the mirror on ourselves”: emphasising that seeking change in others without considering and changing our own behaviour is unlikely to be successful.


If our ability to affect change in others starts within ourselves, then the first sphere to consider is the internal sphere. As one organisational leader, Bill O’Brien, CEO of Hanover Insurance, said about leading change: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” (Source)

In other words, the success of our actions as changemakers depends not on what we do but how we do it, and this starts from how we are internally.

This includes our “mental models” (Peter Senge, Fifth Discipline, 1992), which were explored in the Iceberg Model section of our toolkit. These are the assumptions, stories, beliefs, mindsets that determine how we observe, judge and interact with the world. It is also includes our psycho-emotional make-up; how we feel, process, react. It includes how we respond to external events, which further affects our ‘interior condition’. Systems practice means being aware of this internal/ external change dynamic and becoming skilful at managing it.


Our internal condition is expressed by our external behaviour and actions. How people experience us will have a huge influence on any potential change we are asking of them. This sphere invites us to be aware of how our own behaviour aligns with the behaviour we want from the system as a whole.

If we want, for example, a more compassionate and fair system, how well are we embodying those traits ourselves? If we think greater collaboration is needed within the system, how open and collaborative is our own behaviour and actions?


Systems change is often described as “relational practice”. All social change processes ultimately come down to asking, inviting or encouraging other people to do something different to what they’re currently doing: whether that’s different policies, behaviours, actions. Systems change means doing that across a whole system.

Relationships are the channels through which those changes are proposed, encouraged or facilitated. The better the relationships, the higher the chance of change occurring. Relationships are also a central part of the culture (shared behaviour) within a system, and people’s experience of those systems is often determined by the quality of the relationships within them.

For example, in NPC’s systems analysis of reoffending cycles, people who had been in prison spoke of the impact that relationships with prison officers (whether good or bad) had on their experience. Similarly, people’s experiences of social services or government systems can be either bureaucratic or compassionate, which is in part determined by how relationships are conducted in the system. This will strongly influence people’s engagement with that system and subsequent outcomes.

Bringing about change at a system level requires partnerships, collaborations and movement building, which are built on relationships. We recommend the work of The Relationships Project to further explore the role of relationships in social change.


Organisations are the primary mechanism through which people come together around shared goals and so are a critical dimension of change. In this sphere, we include organisations of all sectors and types, including community groups and informal associations.

There is a clear relationship between the internal, behavioural and organisational spheres: organisational behaviour tends to reflect the shared behaviours, beliefs and mental models of their members, and particularly of their leaders, so your own organisational behaviour should reflect any system change you want to see.

For example, a children’s charity advocating for childcare policy change to make it easier for parents to work must also ensure their own employment policies and practices are parent friendly.

An example of Macro-level, Meso-level, and Micro-level applications on the mental health systemMeso level

The middle ‘meso’ level sits between the micro (local) level and the macro (societal) levels. It is what social theorist, Frank Geels, refers to as “the regime: the combination of institutions, technologies, markets and organisations that give [the] system its structure”. If the macro level sets the operating parameters for the system, the meso level is where it actually operates. It is the “engine room of the system”.

Any systemic change strategy must therefore consider the changes needed at the meso level, and how the other levels interact with them.

The diagram on the right, taken from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is an example of the macro, meso and micro levels applied to systems of mental health intervention.

The meso level is the most complex and will include many different kinds of agencies and entities. Our model separates the meso level into two spheres, collective and infrastructural.


This is the sphere in which your change initiative moves beyond the organisational. It could involve communities, whether geographic or thematic, or any collaborative work across organisations, such as partnerships, alliances or movements.

Affecting change at this level will require any protagonist organisations/ actors to align around shared goals and build effective shared working cultures. This is likely to involve change at the micro levels.


This refers to structures of the system such as umbrella bodies, regulatory regimes and public institutions. There is a two-way relationship of change between the infrastructure and the collective sphere.

For example, infrastructure bodies such as the Care Quality Commission regulate mental health services which influence how groups of organisations deliver services. In the other direction, changes can be brought about in schools by parent groups mobilising for change or in hospitals by coordinated action from patient groups.

There is also a two-way relationship between the infrastructural sphere and policy (which sits at the macro level). Umbrella bodies might achieve policy change through campaigns, while national policies set regulatory parameters that such institutions have a role in implementing.

Macro level

The macro level includes the broadest, societal spheres.

Our model contains two that are particularly relevant for social change initiatives: the political and the cultural.


This does not mean party political but refers to anything pertaining to policies: the national, regional or local level policies that set the parameters for what can happen in a system.

Most systemic change initiatives will eventually interact with policy: whether policies determining how resources are allocated for services, how much social housing can be built, or how courts sentence convicted individuals.


This sphere refers to culture at the societal, rather than, for example, the organisational level. Shared societal beliefs, values, behaviours are at the heart of many of our systems and have cascading influence across all other spheres in the system, from policies to personal behaviour.

For example, our NHS system is built on the shared belief in free healthcare at the point of use. If that belief were to change, then that would likely lead to wholesale change across the entire health system.

This cultural sphere is particularly important for initiatives that target behaviour change at a population level, for example reducing alcohol harms or promoting volunteering.

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Example situation: how internal mindsets can block systemic change

This scenario illustrates how achieving systemic change involves a complex chain of cause and effect across multiple spheres­.

An organisational leader is part of a third sector collaboration advocating for national policy change. This collaboration involves working with organisations that have historically been competitors. The leader knows that ‘speaking with one voice’ is key to achieving political change. However, he is reluctant to trust these partners, who he sees as competitors and with whom there has historically been disagreements.

He is holding firmly to his own strategies, which he perceives are important for his organisational positioning within the sector. His territoriality and mistrust is felt by others, who respond in kind. Disagreements on positions go unresolved, as partners subtly seek to foreground their agenda, and so necessary compromise is not achieved. Although others in the organisation are keen for the collaboration to succeed, the leader is occupying the space and so the organisation’s participation fades. Momentum for the initiative dissipates.

To achieve the change he sought at the political level, changes were required of this leader at the internal level. He needed to increase openness and trust. To do that he needed to first increase self-reflection so as to better understand his own reactions and resistance.

If he was able to do this, his behaviour may have exhibited greater openness and trust. This would lead to improved relationships within the partnership, making it easier for others to reciprocate. In addition, changes may have also been needed in the organisational sphere, perhaps embedding more collaborative practices and strategies to ensure the partnership wasn’t only dependent on the one leader.

If the leader could embed these changes it would lead to a stronger and more effective collective, which would increase their chances of achieving the change they seek in the political sphere, as well as the wider cultural changes regarding societal prioritisation of early years.

Even if they were successful in achieving this policy change, the chain of connected changes would not end there. The focus would then move to change at the infrastructural level to support policy implementation – processes, institutions, service delivery systems, etc. The partners would need to regroup, refocus, and the dynamics would continue throughout the organisational, behavioural and internal spheres.

This example demonstrates the relationship between the internal and the external spheres. It shows the need for alignment but also flexibility and responsiveness between the individual, organisational, collective and political spheres. It shows how change moves up and down the spheres, requiring continual awareness and adaptation if the desired changes are to be achieved.


We have created a canvas for you to apply the Spheres of Systems Change model to a process that you either are, or have been, involved in. In this canvas, we have separated out the spheres from the concentric circles model to make it easier to work with. You can download a template of the canvas in our resources section. There is also a table version for those who prefer to use that format.

We have completed an example canvas to show you how it works using the scenario above.

  1. Target sphere: Start by identifying the sphere you are/were primarily targeting. It’s likely your process is seeking change in multiple spheres. Select which sphere you think is the most critical one. For example, you might be seeking a policy reform. Although this would involve change within the infrastructural sphere (institutions and regulatory systems), this is likely to be directed by macro level policy change, so that’s your primary target. Alternatively, you might select the sphere that represents your point of entry to the system. For example, in the scenario above, the point of entry for the leader was the partnership– the collective When you have selected it, write your target/ primary/ entry sphere in the central circle on the canvas.
  2. Target change: You can then use the box underneath to write the target change.
  3. Connected spheres – required: Next, think about what other spheres are/ were connected, and what changes will be/ were required in those spheres for your desired change to happen. In our previous example, for change to happen in the political sphere mindset changes were required at the internal and organisational sphere, as well as relational changes such as increased trust. You can use this level to think through the connections of changes between the spheres a bit like a Theory of Change.
  4. Connected spheres – actual: As explored in our complexity tools, the chain-reactions of cause and effect are continual and unpredictable– and rarely go to plan. This box provides a space to think about how change interacted between the spheres in reality. If yours is a current example, you may not be able to complete all the spheres but could come back to the canvas later to reflect on some of the ‘change reactions’ you observed. If your example is in the past, you can think through what changes led to other changes, and how all these connected changes influenced your target outcome. In our example above, the desired change didn’t take place because of the consequences cascading from the internal and behavioural spheres, but we can summarise in the box how each was affected the other.
Graphic of spheres of systems change canvas, applied to the previous scenario. Graphic content is replicated in the table version below

Systems Practice Toolkit

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