Impacts that Endure: Using Systems Thinking to Organize Large Scale Collaboration

Marta Ceroni and Ruth Rominger
Posted: June 8, 2018

There are two exceptional systems frameworks that are profoundly helpful for designing change initiatives to address complex issues.  We just shared these classic frameworks with a group of roughly 25 philanthropists at THE EXCHANGE 2018 conference in a session titled The Big Bets of Systems Change: Places to Intervene in the System.


The Iceberg Model for Systems Change is an icon. It frames the bottom line for addressing a complex social and/or environmental problem. And it reminds us that our greatest impacts will result from changing mindsets.  So it goes, if we want to create results (events), different behaviors, relationships, dynamics in current system, we need to start with changing mindsets. This usually means starting with our own! From there, we will be equipped and inspired to design and build different structures – social, economic, technical, etc.  New structures will create new patterns of relationships and behaviors, leading to day-to-day, year-to-year outcomes we want the world to experience.


The Systems Change Framework helps change makers develop strategies and connect with minimal infrastructure to implement aligned, complementary actions across sectors, siloes, disciplines and constituencies.  Here is how we at the Garfield Foundation apply the framework to building a Cancer Free Economy. We started by convening with advocates and funders working on toxics and health to define the system we want to change together. Next we all came up with a shared goal and vision of success - our “North Star.” We then agree on a small set of highest priority interventions and strategies to guide our actions. We organized into teams around the intervention areas and experimented with a set of aligned and complementary actions. As the projects evolved, we designed and implemented a few pieces of infrastructure to support network communication, governance, collective learning and assessment of our progress.


The two frameworks work hand in hand; by reinforcing aligned efforts across a system, everyone’s impacts create waves that will shift long-standing entrenched behaviors underlying the problem, bringing new, visible, and sometimes measurable, signs of change.



                             Garfield Foundation, adapted from TNS


Iceberg Model – Example from Cancer-Free Economy Networ



Examples in Current “Toxic Economy”


People getting sick with cancers from exposure to toxic substances. The awareness of toxics contribution to chronic diseases is very low, medical, technical, policy and economics activities resisting increasing awareness and action for change.


Accumulation of toxic chemicals throughout our environment – products, homes, schools, workplaces, etc. and in our bodies increase exposures that stimulate cancers and other chronic diseases.


The incentives built into markets, laws, industries, education, and politics all support maintaining production and consumption of increasing amounts of cheap, toxic materials, while the

“healthcare” system prospers on the accumulating damage done --  downstream -- treating diseases.


Our values & principles for interacting with others, our society, with nature.

Some people’s health is more important than others

Some people deserve the best, others don’t.

Access to quality medical care is a market issue

Some people will be exposed and exploited so that the rest of us can benefit.



Designing Systems Change Framework  

Think like your working up from the bottom of the iceberg!



Detoxified Economy - Change Agenda


To guide systems transformation


Everyone, everywhere, everyday should have access to clean air, water, and health. (e.g., SDGs (link)

The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use everyday shouldn’t make us sick or cause cancer.

We can solve this working together…

Systems Change Goal define “success”

All of our structures/institutions are “healthcare” systems; new models, multi-disciplinary research, high-road companies, emergent healthy industries, human centered, regenerative design practices, cross-sector partnerships, and a medical system serving all people to be, healthier.

High-leverage intervention strategies

Increase in demand, connect to incentives, policy and market drivers, support for researchers, healthcare providers, policy makers and industry leaders to work on healthier products, protections and prevention.  

Implement Actions

People align across all demographics – to expect and demand more protections; healthier products, jobs, policies, regulation, and enforcement, to protect our health from toxic substances where we “live, work, learn, play and pray.”

The Right Tools

Connected infrastructure that supports systems mapping and analysis tools, communication, democratic governance, and learning, strategizing, building more capacity and analyzing progress.


Marta Ceroni is the Director of Programs at the Academy for Systems Change and Ruth Rominger is the Collaborative Networks Program Director at the Garfield Foundation