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Effective Advocacy: Understand and Use Systems-Thinking Tools

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“Systems thinking [is] a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world.” ~ Peter Senge

Systems-thinking tools help us understand the systems around us and how to engage in systemic change.

Using systems thinking and systems-thinking tools

  • helps us see how we might inadvertently be contributing to the problems we’re trying to solve.
  • helps us find the best leverage points for influencing change.
  • helps us avoid negative unintended consequences.
  • helps us get a clearer understanding of the problem and all its components and relationships.
  • gives us the perspective to help decision makers see the long-term issues and solutions instead of focusing on short-term patchwork solutions.
  • helps reduce the chance of making things worse.
  • helps address the root causes.


Use Systems-Thinking Tools

There are several systems-thinking visual tools that can help you better understand systems. 

Here are a few tools that might be useful in learning more about the systems involved in your area of concern. Note that not every tool will be useful in every situation.

Systems Maps

Systems maps, such as cluster maps and connection circles, can help you get an overview of the systems and system elements involved in your area of concern.

For a deeper dive, see Systems Mapping Tools for Campaign Design.

Here’s an example of a simple systems map, courtesy of the Institute for Humane Education, on the issue of food waste:

Basic systems map focused on food waste




Ladder of Inference

Ladder of InferenceThe Ladder of Inference is a tool for helping us better understand our (and others’) thinking, which can help reveal biases, assumptions, and underlying beliefs and values.

The bottom of the ladder starts with a pool of “observable data” and rises through which data we select to pay attention to, the interpretations we make about that data, and the conclusions we draw and actions we take based on those conclusions. And all of these factors are influenced by our beliefs and values, which are also influenced by our interpretations, actions, and conclusions.

So, two people can witness the same event or piece of information and come to radically different conclusions and actions.

Understanding this process can help you gain insights into the mental models and worldviews around your issue of concern.

Iceberg Model

An Iceberg Model is a useful tool for identifying the events, patterns of behavior, systemic structures, and mental models for a system.

See a brief Iceberg Model related to the use of plastics in Singapore.

Here’s an example of a simple iceberg model, courtesy of the Institute for Humane Education, on the issue of food waste:

Iceberg Model example using food waste
















Behavior-Over-Time Graph

A behavior-over-time graph (BOTG) shows how variables can change over time and helps you see their interrelationships.

In these simple graphs from The Economist, you can see how the behavior of conducting Google searches about “veganism” has increased over time.

Here’s a more complex example of the CDC using BOTGs to discuss public health issues.

Feedback Loops

Feedback loops (the two basic feedback loops in systems thinking are balancing and reinforcing loops) illustrate relationships between components in a system.

Thwink gives a useful overview of feedback loops and offers a couple of simple examples.

Be aware that feedback loops can become quite complex.


Causal Loop Diagrams

Causal loop diagrams show relationships in a system and how they influence each other.

Causal loop diagrams can be complicated, so here’s a quick guide for how to draw them.

This article about climate change shows a simple causal loop diagram.

Be aware that causal loop diagrams can become quite complex.

A Special Note on Negative Unintended Consequences

Take note iconOne of the key benefits of using systems thinking and systems-thinking tools is identifying potential negative unintended consequences. We humans tend to want short-term quick-fix solutions, which often leads to bad things happening—sometimes making things worse than they were before we intervened.

And depending on how we’re intervening, we may just be making ourselves feel good without actually accomplishing anything worthwhile. Even if new harms aren’t happening, the status quo itself can be harmful.

This article uses a systems-thinking approach to look at US foreign policy, and it highlights some of the negative unintended consequences of US actions abroad.

As you’re working on your area of concern, be aware of potential negative unintended consequences of your goals, strategies, framing, and assessments.



Systems Thinking for Social Change by Peter Strom

To learn more about systems thinking see:

Academy for Systems Change
The Donella Meadows Project by Academy for Systems Change
Systems Learning from The Schumacher Institute
The Systems Thinker
Systems Thinking for Campaigning and Organizing by Mob Lab and Blueprints for Change

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