Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

by David Peter Stroh


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Donors, leaders of nonprofits, and public policy makers usually have the best of intentions to serve society and improve social conditions. But often their solutions fall far short of what they want to accomplish and what is truly needed. Moreover, the answers they propose and fund often produce the opposite of what they want over time. We end up with temporary shelters that increase homelessness, drug busts that increase drug-related crime, or food aid that increases starvation.

How do these unintended consequences come about and how can we avoid them? By applying conventional thinking to complex social problems, we often perpetuate the very problems we try so hard to solve, but it is possible to think differently, and get different results.

Systems Thinking for Social Change enables readers to contribute more effectively to society by helping them understand what systems thinking is and why it is so important in their work. It also gives concrete guidance on how to incorporate systems thinking in problem solving, decision making, and strategic planning without becoming a technical expert.

Systems thinking leader David Stroh walks readers through techniques he has used to help people improve their efforts to end homelessness, improve public health, strengthen education, design a system for early childhood development, protect child welfare, develop rural economies, facilitate the reentry of formerly incarcerated people into society, resolve identity-based conflicts, and more. 

The result is a highly readable, effective guide to understanding systems and using that knowledge to get the results you want.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603585804
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Publication date: 10/16/2015
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 199,523
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Peter Stroh is a founding partner of Bridgeway Partners ( and a founding director of He was also one of the founders of Innovation Associates, the consulting firm whose pioneering work in the area of organizational learning formed the basis for fellow cofounder Peter Senge’s management classic The Fifth Discipline. David is internationally recognized for his work in enabling people to apply systems thinking to achieve breakthroughs around chronic, complex problems and to develop strategies that improve system-wide performance over time.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Systems Thinking for Social Change

Chapter 1 Why Good Intentions Are Not Enough 13

Distinguishing Conventional from Systems Thinking

Refining the Definition of Systems Thinking

Closing the Loop

Chapter 2 Systems Thinking Inside: A Catalyst for Social Change 19

How Systems Thinking Meets Four Challenges of Change

When to Use Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking for Collective Impact

Closing the Loop

Chapter 3 Telling Systems Stories 29

Storytelling for Social Change

Shaping a Systems Story

The Elements of Systems Structure

Closing the Loop

Chapter 4 Deciphering the Plots of Systems Stories 45

Basic Plot Lines

The Plots Thicken

The Stories Behind the Story

Closing the Loop

Part 2 The Four-Stage Change Process

Chapter 5 An Overview of the Four-Stage Change Process 71

Convening and Thinking Systemically

The Four-Stage Change Process

Closing the Loop

Chapter 6 Building a Foundation for Change 79

Engage Key Stakeholders

Establish Common Ground

Build Collaborative Capacity

Closing the Loop

Chapter 7 Facing Current Reality: Building Understanding Through Systems Mapping 91

Establish Systems Interviews

Organize Information

Develop a Preliminary Systems Analysis

How to Balance Simplicity and Complexity

Closing the Loop

Chapter 8 Facing Current Reality: Building Support by Bringing the System to Life 123

Engage People in Developing Their Own Analysis

Surface Mental Models

Create Catalytic Conversations

Closing the Loop

Chapter 9 Making an Explicit Choice 137

Understand Payoffs to the Existing System

Compare the Case for Change with the Case for the Status Quo

Create Both/and Solutions-or Make a Trade-Off

Make an Explicit Choice

What Can You Do When People Are Still Not Aligned?

Closing the Loop

Chapter 10 Bridging the Gap 147

Identify High-Leverage Interventions

Establish a Process for Continuous Learning and Outreach

How to Integrate Multiple Interventions

Closing the Loop

Part 3 Shaping the Future

Chapter 11 Systems Thinking for Strategic Planning 167

Two Systemic Theories of Change

Organizing Leverage Points

Integrating Success Factors

Streamlining Choices

How to Refine Your Systemic Theory of Change

Closing the Loop

Chapter 12 Systems Thinking for Evaluation 195

General Systemic Guidelines

Specific Recommendations

Tracking Success Amplification

Tracking Goal Achievement

Closing the Loop

Chapter 13 Becoming a Systems Thinker 205

Develop a Systems Orientation

Learn by Doing

Ask Systemic Questions

Closing the Loop

Acknowledgments 214

Appendix A Vicious Cycles of Climate Change 217

Appendix B Sample Interview Questions for Specific Projects 219

Appendix C Multiple-Archetype Diagrams 222

Appendix D Additional Resources 227

Notes 230

Index 238

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