What We Mean When We Say “Systems Change”

Bioneers is pleased to be running this guest essay by Motaz Attalla, Jennifer Berman, Jessica Conrad, Ruth Rominger, and Eleni Sotos from the Garfield Foundation.

This piece is excerpted from a two-part interview series published on the Garfield Foundation Medium channel. You can access the series in full here.  

What does “systems change” mean to us? It’s a question our team at the Garfield Foundation often returns to after having first asked it in the early 2000s. That’s when we began experimenting with different forms of investment and collaboration grounded in systems thinking. Now, as we look back on 2020, it’s no surprise that the tone of the question has changed, gaining gravity and priority.

On the one hand, the relentless tragedies of 2020 revealed in full contrast how inequitable our systems truly are. They also raised people’s awareness about how dire the need for systems change has become on many levels—and about the systemic nature of society’s problems. One of the many stark inequities that emerged last year is the fact that, nationally, COVID-19 cases and deaths of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color exceeded their proportional share of the population. The roaring public discourse about racial injustice has made it easier for more people to connect dots between what’s currently unfolding in the public health system and the consequences of systemic racism in other realms, including the US criminal justice, public education, and economic systems, to name a few. In a word, the current landscape shows just how interconnected our issues are. At the same time, it’s exposing people to the language of system change.

Meanwhile, we are noticing a greater number of organizations in the social sector describing their approach as systemic or in service of systems change. We also see more and more practitioners building new relationships, developing shared language, refining and diversifying practices, and sharing their experience of leading projects using systemic approaches. They are purposefully collaborating to build the emerging field of systems change practice.

It seems very likely that the events of 2020 contributed to and accelerated these shifts. Yet as these dynamics unfold, we are also noticing that the terms—systems change, systemic, systems approach, et cetera—aren’t yet well defined in broad use or within the field itself. Very rarely do the words come with an explanation of their underlying assumptions, and when they do, we’ve found that people use them with different meanings in different contexts, leading to confusion.

With the language of systems change now firmly in the zeitgeist of the social sector, and growing in use in the general public, we see an opportunity to help clarify the definition and practice of systems change. Anyone who follows our work knows that we believe that the practice of systems change offers immense opportunities for solving society’s toughest challenges. Our hope is that by helping people align around what systems change means, we will strengthen the field’s ability to develop and share systems change practices with more practitioners and organizations to create greater impact. Given that a systemic approach requires intentional work at multiple levels—from the micro to the macro—we also intend to bridge these concepts from the social sector to everyday life. The work we’re talking about here is more than just collaboration and strategy setting within organizations or networks. It’s about our individual mindsets and values and how we act on them. In every interaction. Everyday.

With these intentions in mind, here I speak with a few members of our program team to explore what systems change means to us and how we apply the concept in practice through the foundation’s activities and in the way we live our lives at home.  

For those who are less familiar with our ethos, approach, and programs at the Garfield Foundation, here are a few broad strokes comments about our work by way of context: Our purpose is to support changemakers seeking transformational solutions to complex social and environmental problems. Through our programs, we support the development of networks like the RE-AMP Network and the Cancer Free Economy Network with technical assistance from our team, access to consultants, and grants for establishing network leadership, strategic action agendas, collaborative capacity, and distributed network infrastructure. We also make grants to practitioners to develop applied systems thinking and analytical tools, trainings, and experiments that contribute to building the field of systems change practice. Through these collaborations, we seek to create impact far greater than we could ever hope to create on our own. 

— Jessica Conrad

JESSICA CONRAD, STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER: The word “system” is thrown around all the time, and people use it in reference to so many different things. What type of system do we focus on in our collaborative work with partners?

RUTH ROMINGER, COLLABORATIVE NETWORKS PROGRAM DIRECTOR: The word “system” can be used in reference to many different types of systems, from simple to complicated to complex, including everything from mechanical systems to complex social, environmental and economic systems. 

When we use the terms systems change or systems approach we are talking about complex adaptive systems, which are made up of many parts that all do different things and connect and influence each other in multiple ways. Through their web of relationships, the parts of the system create a whole that is itself different from any single part. This is where the common phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes from. I would add that the whole is not necessarily greater in the sense of being better than, but that it’s different in kind from any of the parts themselves.  

MOTAZ ATTALLA, PROGRAM OFFICER & TECHNICAL ADVISOR: There’s an example I use when I think about systems. I remember Eleni once went to a meeting, and when she described our approach to someone she met there, she said, “You know, we focus on systems change. That’s our guiding strategy.”  To which the person replied, “Oh, great. Us too! We’re focused on changing the foster care system.”

We often hear people talk about changing the criminal justice system, the health care system, the education system, the foster care system. Yet I think when people name those systems, they’re generally referring to the current institutions and regulations that form the structural layer of a sector (or system). The focus is on how it operates to deliver a service or function and, naturally, impact a lot of people’s lives. But these institutions and regulations aren’t the system in its totality. When we consider a system, we look both deep and wide. We look at the structural layer—organizations, policies, laws, and other forms of infrastructure—and we also look beneath and within the structures at the mindsets, values, and beliefs that individuals or groups of individuals hold (known as mental models). As the deepest layer of a system, mental models are the bedrock upon which a system is built. The most important part of this is looking at the relationships between all these different elements—that’s where the real story is. 

When we at Garfield think about systems, we think across all the layers of the Iceberg Model and about how they influence each other. We think about mindsets and paradigms, specific behavioral patterns, as well as relevant structures, regulations, and institutions (many of which might exist beyond a given sector or field or institution), that all underlie a given event.

RUTH: In the context of our work, we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, we’re going to change this system.” We’re not talking about a hospital system or a computer system.  We’re talking about complex layers and relationships that together have particular qualities and behaviors.  When we talk about changing a system, our focus, or subject of inquiry, is the outcome we want to change. We focus on what is creating the current problematic outcome and then define the outcome we want to see. What is the ultimate result we want? So instead of saying we are working on the healthcare system, we might say, how do we create health and wellbeing for everyone? This way, we look at as many different factors as possible that affect people’s health, not just the formal health care system. 

We focus on changing behavioral patterns and relationships to create different outcomes. This means, no matter what the specific problem is, it’s about creating different outcomes that improve the health of people and the planet. When we say something that grand, it really involves looking at all the different factors that create an unhealthy planet and society. We look at the interaction of all the layers across the Iceberg—the mental models, underlying structures, trends or patterns, and events—and how they add up to declining ecosystem health and ruptures within the fabric of society. With this framing, we can then look for what might be possible to change by aligning multiple actions among many stakeholders.

Our projects take on issues within systems that are in and of themselves very complex—like the problem of human-made toxic substances that degrade our health. Of course no one set out with the intention of making chemical products that would accumulate in our systems and make people, and whole populations, sick. People believed that they were trying to meet a need or improve existing products. People either weren’t aware of the unintended consequences of the chemistry, or didn’t take them into consideration. The combination of these consequences has resulted in a problem for the health of people and other living things on the planet. 

Problems like this require systems thinking. We need to look at how all of those decisions have added up over time to this problem that no one party in the system could create alone. This is why we use methods that have been evolving in the field of systems change practice to influence behavior at multiple levels within a system to affect social change. 

ELENI SOTOS, SENIOR PROGRAM OFFICER: I understand your point about unintended consequences in the context of toxic chemicals, and I also want to acknowledge some systems are created that yield intentional outcomes in which there is little or no concern for the harm created. For example, white  people very intentionally created slavery, redlining, and many other forms of oppression. Racial inequality is absolutely intentional. In this case our system is producing an intended outcome.

JESSICA: A very important point, thank you for raising it, Eleni. I think we’ve begun wading into territory I suggest we explore next, which is what systems change means in the context of our work. 

RUTH: In the field, the term “systems change” has become a term of art. It refers both to the practices and frameworks people use, and to a shared understanding of how complex systems change. We don’t use it as a generic term for any type of social change activity.

JEN BERMAN, PARTNERSHIPS & TRAINING OFFICER: The term is being used by lots of different people in different ways. In my mind, systems change is about seeing how multiple influences—which we typically think of and respond to as separate entities—build on each other and create unintended consequences or outcomes. It’s about understanding how the underlying connections, dynamics, and patterns within a system create the current realities we experience.  And it’s about working to change those underlying dynamics, instead of just responding to what is right in front of us. 

RUTH: And it’s a field of practice now.

JEN: Right. The field of systems change is a collection of tools, methodologies, frameworks, and mindsets that people are applying in their work to co-create different outcomes. Systems change is both a process and an outcome.

ELENI: Taken together, the theory and the practice that we’re talking about are now seen as a change process

It’s also important to note that use of the term “systems change” is everywhere now. So many organizations say that their mission is to foster, fund, or in some other way advance systems change. Yet many organizations seem to believe they can do it on their own without trying to understand how their work connects to the larger system, or without working to develop a shared understanding of the system’s dynamics with other stakeholders. 

JEN: In our work systems change requires multiple organizations with different perspectives to come together to create a more comprehensive picture of the system (at a deeper level) than any single organization might have on its own. Then they agree on where they collectively want to go and where and how to intervene to change the underlying dynamics.

JESSICA: We’re already talking a little bit about what it means to act systemically. Let’s go there. What does it mean to put theory into practice—to act systemically?

MOTAZ: As I was thinking about this, I found myself checking against how my family and I operate at home. It’s a complex emergent environment, where there are different actors and pressures and things to be solved or changed, especially during COVID time. In my family, the hard part about integrating multiple perspectives, as Jen just shared, is making space for the kids’ perspectives. This is an analogy. For me to act systematically at home is to really think about their perspectives. If one of my kids, who is very young, does something really disruptive, to act systemically I need to recognize that she’s just trying to survive. So that tantrum, or that disruption, is an expression of something deeper. 

To act systemically is to recognize the conditions that the kids are in. It’s to recognize that the conditions are making them act a certain way. It’s about going deeper into the mindsets or maybe the underlying structures and patterns that cause an event (in this case the disruption) to happen. So much of the pressure I’m experiencing around the event of the systems breakdown in the family—parent burnout, kid boredom, et cetera—has to do with the wider problems of the education system, which are structural. 

One point of intervention for us as a family is to organize with other families within the public school system to co-create new solutions for childcare and education during the pandemic. At the same time, we can experiment with a new arrangement of who does chores—what makes sense for who to do and when—so we can take better advantage of our scarce time and energy resources. Acting systemically might mean creating shared agreements and checking in every few days to see if it still makes sense to continue the agreement. Essentially creating new structures.

All of this has parallels to the kind of systems work that happens in the domain of the social sector. Acting systemically in this context is about engaging different voices, thinking across the multiple levels of an issue, taking a learning orientation, leaning into a more iterative and experimental approach. It’s about recognizing that a problem may have to do with a very deeply rooted structure or a centuries old mindset. It involves checking regularly to see if our practices are still relevant, if a process is starting to create different outcomes in the direction of a desired future, and so on. This is really what acting systemically looks like at the operational level.

RUTH: Some of what resonates for me within your comments, Motaz, is that acting systemically is about being able to see the context in which events are unfolding and understand that the context has evolved over time as a result of many different influences. This helps us realize that we can affect the system (or the current problem) if we understand that it is made up of all of these different dynamics. When carefully considering the context—what’s influencing the problem or the situation you have—so many new options for intervening become available. 

JEN: The school analogy is a really good analogy, Motaz. I think there’s a tendency to think, both as individuals and as organizations, that a problem is “up to us” as individual actors to figure out, and that once we figure it out, we will know what the solution is. In an organizational context, we might think our organization knows best what to do, and we’re going to convince everyone that they should jump on our bandwagon. Acting systemically, on the other hand, means partnering with others to bring in multiple perspectives and harness collective intelligence. That way we can better understand both what is currently happening, and that bigger context you’re talking about, Ruth. 

ELENI: I would also add that traditional philanthropy often encourages what you first described, Jen, by asking organizations what distinguishes their work from other organizations. This incentivizes individual action that appears promising, innovative et cetera, however it doesn’t serve systems change, due to its separation from all the other work going on alongside it. The work of systems change requires everyone in the ecosystem—funders, advocates, practitioners, all of us—to change our mindsets and approaches.

JESSICA: Thanks, everyone, for the rich discussion and reflection. There’s so much here—and so much more to continue probing together.


We acknowledge that we’re offering our experience in thinking about the language and practices of systems change—not the only experience. We are confident that we have blind spots. We hope you share what our reflections bring up for you so that, collectively, we might bring about greater clarity for all.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.