January 14, 2016

  • Why do people resist changes they themselves say they want to make?
  • What can you do to catalyze change in favor of people's desired goals?

Our new article, Systems Thinking for Social Change: Making an Explicit Choice, guides you to take four steps to mobilize people to make the changes they say they really want to make:

  1. Understand that there are payoffs to the status quo.
  2. Compare the case for the status quo with the case for change.
  3. Create solutions that serve both their long- and short-term interests - or make a trade-off with the recognition that meaningful change often requires letting something go.
  4. Make an explicit choice in favor of their higher purpose by weakening the case for the status quo and strengthening the case for change.

This article is an excerpt from David Peter Stroh's new book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results (Chelsea Green, 2015). Reviewers praise it as "an essential - and long overdue - guide to applied systems thinking" that "shows you how to enlist others in the effort" by "masterfully weaving metaphor, story, and practical tools" using "down-to-earth language".

To learn more about the book, you can read free downloads of the introduction and first chapter or order the book in paperback or as an e-book here.

David also recently wrote a blog post that identifies five obstacles to diffusing systems thinking and fourteen strategies you can use to help more people take advantage of the many benefits it offers. To read the post, click here.

November 17, 2015

  • Do you believe in the value of systems thinking but question how to engage others in applying it?
  • How do you overcome people's beliefs that it is too daunting and difficult to use?
  • How do you motivate and enable people to employ systems principles and tools to increase system-wide effectiveness?

To learn how to make systems thinking practical and accessible, read David Peter Stroh's new book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results (Chelsea Green, 2015). Reviewers praise it as "an essential - and long overdue - guide to applied systems thinking" that "shows you how to enlist others in the effort" by "masterfully weaving metaphor, story, and practical tools" using "down-to-earth language".

To learn more about the book, you can read free downloads of the introduction and first chapter or order the book in paperback or as an e-book here.

David has also written a new blog post that identifies five obstacles to diffusing systems thinking and fourteen strategies you can use to help more people take advantage of the many benefits it offers. To read the post, click here.

July 7, 2015

Renewed Congressional pressure to hold foundations more accountable for results in light of their tax-exempt status raises the question of how to best capitalize on their considerable strengths. As conveners, funders, and educators/advocates, foundations can engage diverse stakeholders, provide valuable seed money, and inform policy makers and the public about promising interventions.

At the same time they often find it difficult to align different stakeholders given each party’s tendencies to see only a limited part of a larger system. Moreover, funded initiatives can either produce short-term wins that are negated by longer term impacts, or fail to yield meaningful results in the time frames predicted. It is also difficult to influence policy when the connections between actions taken and results achieved are not obvious and easy to trace.

Funders such as the WK Kellogg Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and Funders Together to End Homelessness are finding that applying the principles and tools of systems thinking enables them to achieve better results in such areas as ending homelessness, improving public health, strengthening early childhood development, and reforming the criminal justice system. A two-part series on leveraging grant-making, reproduced here (Leveraging Grantmaking Parts 1 and 2), explains the benefits of systems thinking to achieving sustainable breakthroughs in such areas.

The series (Leveraging Grantmaking Parts 1 and 2) has just been expanded into a book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, which will be published in October 2015 by Chelsea Green. More news about the book will appear in these pages in the coming months.

January 26, 2015

We often use Systems Thinking retrospectively to help people gain insight into the root causes of chronic, complex problems. We have recently had more opportunities to use it prospectively as a tool for strategic planning. In one case David supported coalitions in a county with well-to-do and economically disadvantaged families to develop strategic roadmaps for 1) reducing the school achievement gap across these diverse populations, and 2) increasing the overall quality of health in the county. In another case he is helping a newly formed foundation to evaluate its first strategic plan through a systemic lens.


Systemic theories of change have several advantages over linear models. They:

  1. Incorporate the dynamics of reinforcing and balancing feedback that explain how social systems behave and unfold
  2. Integrate multiple success factors into a logical and sequenced set of actions over time
  3. Take time delay into account
  4. Include plans to make both short-term and longer term sustainable improvements


Cases that apply Systems Thinking to social change both retrospectively and prospectively will appear in David Peter Stroh’s forthcoming book currently titled Systems Thinking for Social Change: Getting to the Heart of the Matter (Chelsea Green).


April 12, 2010

Foundations are challenged more than ever by growing demand, shrinking budgets, and higher expectations for results. Moreover, despite donors' best intentions, their abilities to succeed have often been undermined by surprising and disturbing outcomes - such as food aid that leads to increased starvation over time and homeless shelters that divert resources from ending homelessness.

Bridgeway Partners and Applied Systems Thinking have just completed publication of a two-part article on "Leveraging Grantmaking" in The Foundation Review, the first peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy. Part 1 of the series enables donors - and their recipients - to understand why their well-intentioned efforts to solve social problems often fail, and where to find leverage in a complex system (http://www.bridgewaypartners.com/FR1- print.pdf).

Part 2 enables donors to align their programmatic approaches with how these systems behave and evolve, and it offers a series of questions both donors and grantees must consider to ensure the highest and most sustainable returns on their investments
(http://www.bridgewaypartners.com/FR2color. pdf).

March 16, 2009

The current economic crisis blindsided most lenders, borrowers, and regulators. Unless we fully understand and address the dynamics that led to the crisis, even further economic disruption is likely. Examine the systemic causes of the crisis and their implications for business and political leaders in “A Systems View of the Economic Crisis” in the topical issues section of the AST Resource Library.

February 14, 2008

People often think of systems thinking as a strictly analytical approach to solving complex problems. However, solving complex organizational problems depends on the strong support of decision-makers to think and act differently. This in turn requires building a strong foundation for organizational change before applying the technical tools of systems thinking. You can learn more about how to build this foundation by going to “Building the Foundation for Change” in the leveraging change section of the AST Resource Library.

December 26, 2007

In our last journal entry we identified the unintended addictive tendencies of political leaders to solutions that perpetuate instead of solve chronic, complex social problems. This month we introduce an analysis of the United States’ growing prison population and often unsuccessful efforts to help ex-offenders integrate back into society. The analysis sponsored by the Open Society Institute (www.soros.org) concluded that one high potential area for intervention is in reducing our fears of not only being a victim of violent crime, but also of poor young people of color who make up such a high percentage of people in prisons. These findings are detailed in the new report, “Facilitating Reentry of Formerly Incarcerated People: A Systemic Approach” in the topical issues section of the AST Resource Library.

October 7, 2007

In recent work with such chronic, complex social problems as homelessness and recidivism among released prisoners, we have noticed an interesting trend: Political leaders who seek to assist drug addicts in living productive lives often become addicted to policies that increase the very problem they are trying to solve. For example, the well-intentioned policy of providing temporary shelters for people who are homeless can undermine the development of permanent, supportive housing by reducing visibility of the homelessness problem and diverting funds away from a more lasting solution. "Get tough" sentencing for drug users can lead to further marginalization of ex-offenders when they are released, making it even more difficult for them to overcome their problems and lead productive lives. These findings will be detailed in upcoming reports in the topical issues section of the AST Resource Library.

September 7, 2007

Crisis management or firefighting typically overwhelms time spent on developing and implementing strategy. For example, the internal R&D group of a major health care chain that was responsible for introducing new information technology asked "Why do we spend so much time fixing software bugs and fending off additional demands from our customers?" The group learned that its very tendency to raise expectations of customers about the potential of its products kept it in firefighting mode (for a fuller description of the case, go to Marilyn Paul and David Peter Stroh, "Managing Your Time As Leader".

Another study of new product development organizations revealed that conceptual activity required to plan new releases is often displaced by requirements to solve problems in the current release. Moreover, the study suggests that a one-year increase in workload of 25% can permanently put an organization into firefighting mode! To learn more about how to reduce firefighting, you are invited to attend a workshop, "Only You Can Prevent Firefighting", at the 17th annual Pegasus Conference in Seattle November 5-7, 2007.

The Rich Get Richer...

Describes the dynamics underlying this persistent and growing problem, and substantiates the importance of empowering poor people through giving them more control over the factors of production. Download the PDF.

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