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Using Systems Practice to Tackle Difficult Problems in Complex Environments

Learn how a systems approach can help you unite a community around an issue, map a system for change, and design a strategy to shift the status quo.
19 minutes

“I used to take baths and swim in the river when I was a kid. Now, when my son comes with me, he’s not able to swim in it because it’s so dirty. When my son goes there when he is my age, it will be a cesspool.”

Compelled to take action, Acumen India Fellow Raja Muzaffar Bhat started writing to shed light on the scars poor environmental management was leaving on his beautiful country. He penned over 60 articles on waste management alone.

Shifting a system takes more than a mighty pen, but writing content to catalyze awareness is just the beginning of Muzaffar’s action plan. If the trajectory of this waste management campaign follows that of his previous efforts, the Kashmir rivers are in good hands.
In 2006, Muzaffar witnessed a woman purchasing rice from a government store. He watched as an official charged her the higher price even though she held a card entitling her to the more affordable subsidized rate. Unaware of her rights, the woman - and countless others - suffered the pain of unjustified extra cost.  
This moment lit a fire in Muzaffar that is still going strong today, over ten years later. 
First, he filed a case against the corrupt official, then he organized people in nearby villages around the cause, lobbied the government to enact a stronger version of the right to information law and documented the entire issue and process through his own writing and pieces in the media. In March 2009, this advocacy led to the enactment of a new Right to Information Law. 
Since 2009, Muzaffar has been leading the movement to uphold the new law. Most recently, his inquiry into financial reporting from India’s JK Bank (where the state’s 59% stake qualifies it as a public authority) exposed a layered corruption scandal. The bank’s persistence in avoiding the request for information led to the dismissal of the Chairman and national coverage shed light on information’s role in holding government parties accountable.
Much like the degradation of Muzaffar’s Kashmir rivers, the repercussions of a system at work might be easy to see, but the combined forces that create them are not always so clear. 
A system is characterized by a series of discrete yet diverse forces -- whether it be people, policies, or perspectives -- that interact in complex and unpredictable ways. These forces are interdependent and in constant motion; this fluidity makes it hard to predict how the whole system will react and shift as forces evolve over time.
Intervening in the forces shaping a system requires patience, grit, an objective eye, and the emotional intelligence to rally a network into frank conversation, and later, action.
If you strive to effect systems-wide change, consider yourself a ‘system investigator’. Convene stakeholders to gather clues together and unearth the system’s shared story.
When you take this approach, it’s possible to build a shared understanding of the system together. With all parties aligned and working toward the same vision, you will achieve leveraged results. 

It will take all of us to make things right for those who have too long been excluded from opportunity. In our inter- connected world, developing an understanding of our shared humanity has become a critical skill, one upon which our shared future ultimately depends.

Natalia León
Acumen Colombia Fellow 

Why think about systems change?

If the challenges of our time could be solved simply by implementing concrete solutions to well-understood problems, they would likely all be fixed by now! 
Instead, investing dollars or time triggers any number of results - not only the ones we expect. The interconnectedness of all these injected resources and activities combine to form the systems at work in our world.
Luckily for us, there is a tool - systems practice - which can help us better understand and move through complex, systems-level, problems. Systems practice doesn’t make hard problems easier, but it does provide a methodology to see the same problems more clearly.

The Omidyar Group explains the challenges in trying to solve complex problems and how systems thinking can help:

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 As Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group explains in the Acumen Academy's Systems Practice course, “if you’re grappling with an intractable problem in a difficult complex environment, taking the time for systems practice will give you a better chance of actually doing something productive toward that goal and in that environment.”

Have you ever found yourself facing an issue where the seemingly straightforward solution didn’t bring about the results you expected?


Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group describes an example of when a clear-cut solution exacerbated the problem instead of solving it:

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Here are a few scenarios where a systems thinking approach will help you see a problem more clearly:

1. You’re in a complex environment:

  • People tried implementing solutions that should have worked but didn’t
  • Problems keep morphing
  • It feels like you can’t keep up with the pace of event

​2. The nature of the goal is complex:

  • The current goal of work is to go deeper than a band-aid solution
  • Technical solutions (straightforward blueprint fixes) aren’t sufficient

​3. You are in an enabling environment:

  • You’re in a position to step back and conduct an analysis
  • You have the capacity to dedicate time and/or resources prior to implementing a solution

Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group describes the three criteria in more detail in this video excerpt from the Acumen Academy Systems Practice course:

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From the field: Acumen Fellows share what systemic change means to them

We jump into action with the communities, but systemic change is also about thinking and analyzing the real challenges of a system. It’s understanding the difference between what we can solve in a technical way and what is more adaptive. For me, it’s getting to the root of the problem and solving it from there.

Natalia León, Acumen Colombia Fellow 

Benefits of taking a systems approach

A systems approach brings multiple stakeholders together to rally around a shared story and unite around a common purpose to drive change.

For stakeholders, the approach removes blame, builds a shared understanding of the issue at hand, and illuminates next steps for shifting the status quo for the better. 

Systems language provides an alternative to the blame game

A systems thinking approach gives individual stakeholders an objective, high-level view of all of the forces at play. Instead of a person or organization feeling like are doing something wrong or not doing enough, looking objectively at the whole system brings a new perspective to what’s causing surface-level issues or results.

From the field: Acumen Course Taker Uses Systems Practice for Peacebuilding

Borja Paladini Adell is a Bogotá-based peacebuilder who is leading a team in the creation of a large database that gathers evidence on how the Colombia peace agreement is being implemented. By collecting data from interviews and a multitude of sources, the team is keeping a pulse on the peace process. Seeking to develop a better understanding of the data from the 74-theme peace agreement, Borja and his team turned to the Acumen Academy Systems Practice course.
One benefit of employing a systems approach was eliminating the ‘blame game’. Borja explains, “The language of systems helps us to analyze the advances in the implementation, the difficulties, the gaps, the potential positive and negative cascading effects, and the interdependencies between several areas of the peace agreement. Such evidence and analysis helps support a collaborative space between the key decision-makers in the implementation process.”

Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group describes how system mapping frees people from blame in this video excerpt from the Acumen Academy Systems Practice course:

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Systems practice builds a new shared understanding of the problem

Taking a systems approach also provides the opportunity for all involved to ‘see themselves’ in the system. When the community is part of building a systems change map, a shared understanding of the problem emerges.
This new understanding allows the community to rally around a shared narrative of what’s happening and better see all the way from the surface-level symptoms to the root cause. 
To better understand the role systems practice plays in environmental conservation, we interviewed Liliana Gutierrez, Executive Director of Noroeste Sustentable (NOS). NOS is an organization working to revitalize the local marine ecosystem in La Paz, Mexico, where the scallop and clam fishery of the Ensenada de La Paz had been devastated.
They started to map the forces that were at play to better understand the system - but they didn’t get it right at first. Liliana recalls: “I still remember the first time that we shared systemic maps with the community and how weird it was. At the beginning, we would first draw the system and show it to the community and say, ‘Hey, this is your system. Now let's think about how to intervene.’ Then they were like, ‘What’s that? No, no, that's not me!’ "That's when we discovered that the system emerges as another guest in your circle, but you have to build it with them.”

Mapping the system illuminates next steps

Once a system is mapped, it’s possible to look for points of leverage. These areas of a system hold the highest potential for impact when attention, or resources, are directed their way. With the leverage points in mind, multiple stakeholders in a system can arrive at a shared vision of how they want to transform the system and build a strategy for moving forward together.
The case study shared in this article provides a great example of implementing systems practice and how it can point the way toward a shared, aligned community strategy to maximize resources.

How to drive change within a system

Acumen Colombia Fellow, Natalia León, is streetfootballworld’s Regional Manager & Head of Partnership for Latin America. In this role, she brings together organizations across Latin America who are using football as a tool for change across issues ranging from education to peacebuilding. The goal is to map the region and bring regional solutions to global problems.

Natalia partners with the top football organizations in the world, including FIFA, to bring reconciliation and peace building from the pitch into the community. One example is a project called Football for Emergency Response, which uses football as a tool for restitution of human rights for migrants in Latin America. In partnership with football players and humanitarian aid organizations, this project offers much needed relief in refugee camps, inspiring migrants to play again and reducing overall tension and sexual abuse in the camps.

With Natalia’s work as an example, let’s examine the four fundamental steps of systems practice that every change-maker should consider. 

#1 - Scope and frame the system under investigation

With systems thoroughly embedded and interconnected, it’s necessary to consider and articulate the scope of work before launching into the practice.
In the Systems Practice course, Rob explains, “you don’t want to spin off into space and think too broadly, nor do you want to think too granularly.” The course walks course takers through exercises to construct:
  • A Guiding Star: the vision of your desired future state of the system
  • A Near Star: the 5-10 year outcome that makes significant progress toward the guiding star), and
  • A Framing Question: the question that will help your team focus efforts to understand the system that you are going to engage
One word of caution in this preparatory phase is to avoid framing your goals specifically based on your organization’s current work. Although you’ll be inclined to put your current strategy at the bullseye of the system, it may not be the case once you dive into exploring the system with community.
In Natalia’s case, it took time to find the right context when members got together to discuss the system.
Initially, the group began mapping opportunities, or the possible solutions, that could be spread across regions within streetfootballworld’s network. With time, they realized it was more powerful to begin by working with stakeholders on-the-ground to map the existing infrastructure and deeply understand needs. From there, the path cleared to find the best partners and “see how the architecture of aid fit into the structure [they] created” to then spread solutions across regions.
The other challenge they faced when discussing the system was that stakeholders spanned across geography.
As Natalia explains: “When you're thinking about it from the community level, it's so much easier because you're mapping the challenges with the community. You are developing trust within the community… and traction happens in the same community and they will own it. But when you're thinking about it at a regional level, or at a global level, who has the power? … If it's not a big decision-maker, how many change-makers or community leaders do we need in order to create a revolution?”

A systems view stands back just far enough to deliberately blur discrete events into patterns of behavior.

Zaid Hassan in “The Social Labs Revolution” 

#2 - Bring the community together to map the system

No matter how complex a system, it’s possible to tease out the factors that inhibit or enable change. This is accomplished through a process commonly known as ‘mapping the system,’ and it starts by bringing the community together for several conversations. The goal is to visualize the forces at play in a system and hypothesize how they might be connected.
Common themes—or ‘shared truths’—can slowly emerge during the mapping process. In the Acumen Academy Systems Practice course, these are called ‘feedback loops’ or ‘dynamic patterns’. Jargon aside, the loops are simply stories of how things work in the system’s context.
In Natalia’s example, the network of organizations using football as a tool for change in Latin America share a feeling of isolation working on their own. They are determined to work through intractable challenges even though there are no clear answers and have a desire to learn from others to find more cost-efficient approaches and spread sustainable solutions into new regions.
When the community members gather together, Natalia describes how discussion begins with surface level problems, such as needing help writing grants. However, as the conversation continues, the people in the room arrive at the deeper challenges they all share, such as the feeling that their effort may never be enough.

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Systems mapping can be used to help stakeholders build a visual picture of the relationship and interdependencies beyond the boundaries they normally assume.... Tools that help foster reflection and generative conversation are aimed at enabling groups to slow down long enough to ‘try on’ other people’s viewpoints regarding a complex problem.

Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania
in “The Dawn of System Leadership”

#3 - Identify opportunities for leverage

When the hard work of codifying a ‘shared truth’ within a systems map is complete, clues emerge pointing to opportunities for change. These clues are known as points of leverage in systems practice. 
Look for points of leverage with these questions:
  1. Where are there parts of map that are frozen (i.e. parts where change is unlikely to happen any time soon)?
  2. Where is there pent up energy for change in the system (i.e. people have energy for change but there is a blockage)?
  3. Where are there bright spots (i.e. positive examples where there is something happening that goes against the trend)?
  4. Where is there a mixed bag impact on the system (i.e. there are both positive and negative forces at play)?
  5. Where do you see potential for ripple effects (i.e. elements that are highly interconnected with other parts of the system where if we were successful moving it, it would have ripple effects)?

Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group describes how to identify opportunities for leverage in this video excerpt from the Acumen Academy Systems Practice course:

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If you haven’t guessed by now, streetfootballworld found a powerful point of leverage in the sport of football.

Football is a passion shared across borders - immune to barriers of race, language, gender and age. streetfootballworld uses a variation of the traditional football match called football3, where three halves -  a pre-match discussion, a football game, and a post-match discussion - and zero referees transform the game into a vehicle for inclusion, equality and teamwork.

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The football3 methodology has been used to bring discussion to tackle challenges around gender equality, social integration, peacebuilding, civic engagement and much more.

What makes good strategy so hard in systems change is the inherent tension between understanding the broader context and distilling that understanding into coherent actions focused on a small number of critical factors and dynamics (aka the mythical leverage points).

Jeff Mohr, CEO of

#4 - Design a strategy and be open to learn and adapt as you implement

Once the points of highest leverage are identified, it’s time to gain the reward you’re after - a simple strategy to implement and drive change.
Use the map to analyze the current state and use it as a base to communicate a narrative that everyone can understand. The systems map will display several loops and interaction points, but a smart strategy does not try to tackle every inflection point at once.
With this in mind, develop a guiding policy (which is also closely linked with your guiding star). A guiding policy points to elements of the system that can be most easily influenced given the team’s, or network’s, unique capabilities. It aids in focusing efforts to align action and start shifting the system toward a new desired state. 
At this stage, it can be tempting to overcomplicate the strategy. It might not be revolutionary and it might even feel painfully obvious in the end! But systems practice aligns all the stakeholders on a simple and focused strategy so that everyone can work smarter, together.

“Good strategy takes a stance. It has explicit hypotheses. It asks ‘what is really going on here?’ It plans for ways to fail safe and admits uncertainties. It lays out coherent actions that focus on shifting a few critical dynamics. And it should be simple enough for those who aren't experts to follow...We should take the simplicity of our resulting strategy as a sign that we've embraced the complexity, understood it, and found a few key leverage points where we actually have a shot at making an impact.”

-Jeff Mohr, CEO of

Natalia’s football network is clear that they come together for support, not necessarily to change the way they’re working. They thrive on face-to-face meetings and make a point of syncing meetings up alongside high-profile football matches. They form task forces for specific topics in need of further exploration, such as the migration task force focused on supporting the refugee migration crisis in Latin America, as the need arises.

We have annual meetings within the regions where we create our regional strategies connected to a global strategy where we really want to change the game at a global level.

From the Field: Implementing Systems Change through Activism

Acumen India Fellow, Raja Muzaffar Bhat, also uses advocacy and journalism to effect systems change. In addition to publishing articles ranging in theme from solid waste management to citizen rights, he recruits fellow champions in his network to advocate for reform through the judicial system. Together, they file petitions using public interest litigation in the Jammu and Kashmir high court and forums like the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi.
In advocacy there is strength in numbers. Muzaffar shares how he taps into a typically underappreciated population to boost his efforts: “I’ve gathered a very important team of senior citizens. Retired people in their 60’s or 70’s are an important resource of human capital. They bring valuable different backgrounds, from legal to judicial, and have no need for money in exchange for their contribution.”
As another key to effecting change, Muzaffar credits a close and diverse network for his ability to tackle complex problems at the systems level. His travels have taken him to all 22 districts in his state, and out of the 350 villages in his district, he has visited more than 300. “I get regular feedback from people their issues their problems. Ten to 15 people are in contact constant touch with me. I understand the issue or challenge at the system level and can better connect with government officials, apprising them about the issues.”

Learn more about Muzaffar’s story in the video below.

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Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling are co-founders of Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), a social innovation lab that strives to support people's healing from adversity by educating community, reshaping systemic practices, and fostering deep-rooted connections.
After nine months and with over 300 people engaged through interviews and community workshops, the Edgecombe County community in North Carolina arrived at what ROI calls a ‘shared truth’.
People could then see themselves in the systems map and say, “this is my story.” Grounded and aligned in this shared truth, the community members identified a united strategy of ‘shifting from punishment to healing’ in order to shift issues stemming from unaddressed trauma experienced by members of the community.
The alignment around the idea of “shifting from punishment to healing” served as a North Star, a shared understanding and language the community can all speak about, and a shared vision for how to move forward in the most effective way. The community felt empowered to uncover the deeper root cause - if they can name it, they can predict it - and then work to prevent the pattern from repeating.
Both trained in human-centered design by leading firms IDEO and Frog, Vichi and Seth met as high school teachers in rural Eastern North Carolina. They did not begin this work with the purpose of addressing trauma and were inspired by the children and families they met teaching. They took their knowledge of human-centered design and began speaking with residents to unearth community-identified priorities.


Conversations with community members began with interviews; they conducted over 30 with local parents and other teachers. Although previously not named or seen, the theme of unaddressed trauma began to emerge in common from the initial interviews. To gauge the validity of this initial insight, Vichi and Seth invited invited representatives from the schools, health, law enforcement, and faith communities to a meeting to share the results.
The response was overwhelming. People were starting to see how this root cause of unaddressed trauma might be showing its face in their particular work. For example, emergency room staff were seeing the link that unaddressed trauma might be the cause of unexplained chest pain and gastrointestinal issues where no physical causes could be identified.
More than anything, community members began to see that something larger was at play underneath the surface. Many issues were symptoms of a larger and more complex challenge.
Seth explains how this realization shifted the energy of the community: “Removing individual blame created a shared opportunity to maybe do some things differently, and to work together in new ways. I think it’s energizing to people and gave us all energy or hope, this idea that there is evidence and answers to some of the challenges of trauma that seem intractable. People who were working in systems and feeling isolated or down started to feel more hopeful.”


ROI engaged the community in several 8-week sprints over the course of nine months. Attendance was initially encouraged through invites from the trusted school district, and then began to spread through word of mouth. The conversations shared during the sprints were resonating so strongly that the insights themselves started to spark interest in participating.
Armed with only a draft systems map, each sprint asked community members to view the map and share which parts felt truthful and which still seemed incorrect. Together, community members discussed the possible ‘core story’ as well as the upstream and downstream forces at play in the system.
There was no set number of sprints planned, but eventually Vichi and Seth got to the point where meetings were 80-90% people pointing out which parts the map were accurate and asking, “Now what can we do about this?”
ROI knew it was time to move into the next phase.


ROI contracted with Engaging Inquiry, a consulting firm that supports systems mapping efforts across the world. “Having the direct support of Engaging Inquiry’s team took our community’s systems map to a whole different level. Karen’s (CEO) facilitation and Bailey’s (Principal, Community Health Systems) constant guidance led to a systems map that reflected community member’s stories in a deep and truthful way. This led to buy-in and support from community members and leaders to really engage with the map as a tool for building a community-wide vision for action,” said Vichi.
With a more complete systems map, the community gathered for a full-day workshop with the goal of starting to imagine a strategy to shift the system. Seth notes how it was critical to have community members with lived experience in the room to share their perspective as options were discussed. This prevented those working in the system from arguing about ‘what’s real’ and instead centered everyone around the lived experience of those most influenced by forces in the system.
Demetric "Deko" Lancaster, a lifelong Tarboro resident, who was an integral part of the leverage workshop, shared, "I was traumatized in the past as a child, I grew up, I made mistakes. Since I got a second chance I’m trying to reach out to people before they even have to go through what I went through.”
At the workshop, ROI used the systems map to discuss where the system was frozen or hard to move, where there might be bright spots where efforts would be most effective in shifting the status quo, and where there would be ripple effects after action was taken.
The result was a leverage map pointing to the areas of the system where there would be most potential for change given limited resources, and a shared hypothesis of how to move forward into actionable strategy.
The community now had a three-step strategy for becoming trauma-informed:
#1 - Learn about what trauma is and how to respond differently.
#2 - Heal through shifting practices and habits to create less punishment
#3 - Connect people to each other, and to meaningful education, employment, and leadership opportunities


ROI and Edgecombe County are starting to shift the system around unaddressed trauma in their community. The first step is working in coordination to better educate all involved in identifying trauma and learning to respond differently.
In alignment with the systemic strategy the community has built, ROI has already provided 70 awareness building presentations for 2900 people. Additionally, over 140 people including teachers, social workers, nurses and non-profit staff from across sectors have gone through a 2-day, 14-hour evidence-based curricula that educates about trauma and equips people to build resilience. ROI also supports the use of biofeedback to balance stress and build the health for students in school.
The systems approach has also garnered attention and support to the tune of nearly $500,000 in funding. Vichi explains the funding has come as a result of, “the clarity that systems mapping provides, The community engagement work of the systems mapping resulted in a community-built systemic strategy. We can now begin to execute this community strategy. The clarity has built positive momentum, we can feel the result of systems mapping.”​

Next steps

 We cannot accomplish wide-scale change in isolation. Instead, we need to align efforts to move the needle on today’s stubborn challenges. Systems practice is one tool in the toolbox to help us better define the root causes of issues together and move forward with coordinated strategies.

Take these parting words from Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group to inspire your next steps:

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