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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Mental models, or theories in use (Argyris & Schon, 1974), are cognitive frameworks based on our knowledge and assumptions about how the world works that are used when conceptualizing and acting on a given task (Senge, 1990).

  2. 2.

    Of course, systems change can also happen as a continuous change endeavor. When systems change happens in this manner, it occurs as a result of ongoing continuous adjustments to a system’s form and functioning so that ultimately these small shifts “cumulate and create substantial change” within the system (Weick & Quinn, 1999, p. 375.). In fact, episodic systems change efforts sometimes transform into continuous change efforts, particularly when systems effectively resist significant changes to their status quo. The focus in this paper is on the episodic form of systems change since that is the intended goal of most systems change effort and the type most often experienced (at least initially) by human service systems and communities through funding requests.

  3. 3.

    For a review and discussion of frequently occurring patterns within system interdependencies, their implications for system functioning, and techniques for mapping these relationships through causal loop diagrams see http://www.systems-thinking.org/arch/arch.htm or Kim & Anderson, 1998.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Theresa Behrens, Miles McNall, and the three anonymous reviewers for their excellent feedback on previous versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Pennie G. Foster-Fishman.

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Foster-Fishman, P.G., Nowell, B. & Yang, H. Putting the system back into systems change: a framework for understanding and changing organizational and community systems. Am J Community Psychol 39, 197–215 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-007-9109-0

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Keywords

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