Putting the system back into systems change: a framework for understanding and changing organizational and community systems

  • Pennie G. Foster-Fishman
  • Branda Nowell
  • Huilan Yang
Original Paper


Systems change has emerged as a dominant frame through which local, state, and national funders and practitioners across a wide array of fields approach their work. In most of these efforts, change agents and scholars strive to shift human services and community systems to create better and more just outcomes and improve the status quo. Despite this, there is a dearth of frameworks that scholars, practitioners, and funders can draw upon to aid them in understanding, designing, and assessing this process from a systemic perspective. This paper provides one framework—grounded in systems thinking and change literatures—for understanding and identifying the fundamental system parts and interdependencies that can help to explain system functioning and leverage systems change. The proposed framework highlights the importance of attending to both the deep and apparent structures within a system as well as the interactions and interdependencies among these system parts. This includes attending to the dominant normative, resource, regulative, and operational characteristics that dictate the behavior and lived experiences of system members. The value of engaging critical stakeholders in problem definition, boundary construction, and systems analysis are also discussed. The implications of this framework for systems change researchers and practitioners are discussed.


Systems change Comprehensive community change Deep structures Second order change Comprehensive community initiatives 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pennie G. Foster-Fishman
    • 1
  • Branda Nowell
    • 2
  • Huilan Yang
    • 3
  1. 1.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.North Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  3. 3.W. K. Kellogg FoundationBattle CreekUSA

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