Designing Interventions That Change Systems

by admin April 26, 2022

by Freya Bradford, Director of Systems Change and Learning


This is the third in a four-part series that explores using a systems change approach to address complex community-level problems. The first blogs in the series are about bringing people together around a common purpose and then moving upstream of a problem to find leverage points for change. This installment explores how work that changes systems is designed.     

Complex problems have an interconnected web of causes that defy singular solutions. In my previous blog, I talked about how to make that web more visible to find problematic patterns and points of leverage where a small change may have an outsized influence. Once those opportunities are identified, systems can begin to shift when multiple actors from across a system design a constellation of actions that act on those patterns, are intentionally connected, mutually support one another, and are designed for learning and adaptation. 


Causes of Complex Problems 

“Systems Change is about shifting the conditions that are holding a problem in place.” – Social Innovation Generation (SIG) Canada 

In 2018 Rotary Charities began funding collaborative initiatives targeting the causes of complex problems through our Systems Change Accelerator grant category. To date, more than $1.3 million has been invested in 10 initiatives. Seed grants have also been awarded to help initiatives in the early stages of convening and connecting around a common purpose or exploring a problem and finding leverage points for change.    

What does the work of systems change actually change? We use a framework laid out by FSG to communicate about the targets of systems change work. Systems change action generally targets multiple factors ranging from things that are tangible like policies, practices and resources, to things that are intangible like power and the way people think about a problem. Systems change initiatives are often working on many of these simultaneously, and also remain nimble to shift targets as circumstances change.   


Targets of Systems Change


Kania, John, et al. "The Water of Systems Change." FSG, June 2018


Designing for Systems Change 

“[Design] small early successes to reach momentum generating tipping points rather than relying on blunt strategy.” – Frances Westley, et al. Getting to Maybe 

Systems change work can be collaboratively designed by a network of partners using a planning process where all actions are decided on by the group, documented in a plan, and carried out by implementation teams accountable to the group, as is the case in most Collective Impact initiatives. Systems change work can also be more decentralized where goals may be established by a network or collaboration, but the work is more emergent with no written plan or timeline. 

Ask “How might we?” 

Whether centralized or decentralized, a systems change design process can benefit from borrowing from the fields of design and innovation. Global design firm, IDEO’s, design prompt “How might we…” can be a helpful bridge between the information uncovered in upstream problem exploration and on-the-ground actions to change a system.  


IDEO's design prompt


Used in this way, a systems change design prompt could be: 

 “How might we [change a problematic system pattern or leverage point] by influencing [a systemic factor]?” 

The problematic patterns or leverage points in this template are things your team uncovered while upstream (you can repeat the question for different patterns or leverage points). The systemic factors are the explicit and implicit things in the triangle above – the specific polices, practices, relationships, resource flows, power dynamics that might shift that pattern.  

For example, prior to the creation of Housing North, an organization dedicated to systems change around the issue of affordable housing, a group of organizations and advocates from the housing system deeply explored the lack of affordable housing in the region. They found a myriad of factors and patterns upstream of the problem, including a deep pattern that was creating a high cost of development. Many factors contributed to the high cost of development like inaccurate public and legislative perception of the problem; lack of resources for our communities, taxing, funding criteria and zoning that discourage the type of development that is needed; and public opposition to new development and zoning changes.  

Using this example, design questions for this system might have looked like: 

“How might we reduce the cost of development by influencing policies that enable or inhibit the development or affordable housing?”  

“How might we reduce the cost of development by influencing the NIMBY mindsets that oppose changes in zoning and development?” 


Finding a Constellation of Actions 

Divergent thinking at this stage of brainstorming can result in many ideas for action. Criteria can help a team converge on the most potent and viable actions. The following criteria have been adapted from the ABLe Change Framework created by Dr. Pennie Foster-Fishman and Dr. Erin Watson while at Michigan State University.  

  • Is there a champion organization or partnership that would like to take on a particular action? 
  • Does the organization or team have the capacity and influence needed (knowledge, skills and tools)? If not, is there a way to increase capacity through partnerships, consulting or training? 
  • Are there resources, or sources, to support the action and/or to build the needed capacity?  
  • Is this action likely to change conditions for those most affected by, or at risk of consequences from the problem? (design for equity) 
  • Will the action be part of a constellation that includes actions at different scales (individual, organizational, multi-organizational, community changes) and across sectors (health care, education, transportation, etc.)  


Housing North’s design process resulted in a constellation of actions that included:  

  • Developing a regional Communications Toolkit to help system actors build accurate and consistent messages around housing in public dialogue 
  • Developing and sharing Housing Ready guidance and support for communities to help local leaders lay the engagement, planning, zoning and funding groundwork that enables more affordable housing development     
  • Equipping advocates for State and local policy changes like those that enable accessory dwelling units, deed restriction programs, and new funding mechanisms  


Housing North is only four years old, but signs of systems change are already evident in the 10-county region they serve like deeper community engagement, interest in housing ready communities, zoning changes being implemented, new public private partnerships, a volunteer speakers bureau to help share accurate information, and new workforce housing projects.  


Incentivizing and Supporting Aligned Actions 

Aligned actions across a system can be incentivized and supported by network leadership. Another Systems Change Accelerator grantee, the Northwest Michigan Community Health Innovation Region (NWCHIR), is working to create greater health equity by shifting power to residents. One action co-created by the NWCHIR Learning Community is the Community Empowerment Project, an innovation fund to support community-based projects led by residents. This work emerged from a resident voice exploration and the recognition of a shared challenge – the gap between traditional decision-makers and those experiencing the problem, barrier, or inequity. Project Coordinator, Erin Barret says, “While we are still in the implementation phase, early results of this work include building new relationships with residents, strengthening our collective capacity to facilitate the change we want to see, and recognizing and honoring residents as experts.” 

Another outgrowth of the NWCHIR, the Behavioral Health Initiative, began in June 2021 to respond to the emerging mental health crisis in the region. Funded primarily by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, a small leadership team talked with hundreds of stakeholders and pulled together a Blueprint for Action. The blueprint includes both the current state of the problem in the region as well as dozens of potential action areas under two goals stakeholders pointed to:  

  • Ensure access to quality behavioral health resources 
  • Enhance wellbeing and resiliency 


The team then invited the community to a virtual summit that enabled over 140 individuals from the system (service providers, administrators, funders, policy makers, residents, etc.) to self-organize under the action area they were most interested in and able to help with. Twelve action teams formed at the first summit and began a “design sprint” to plan the first five months of action based on the data and guidance in the Blueprint. The actions were not approved through any centralized authority, but initiative leadership is committed to supporting the action teams and making their progress visible through a Behavioral Health Initiative website.   

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan provides backbone support to the action teams – helping schedule meetings, purchase resources, even find and apply for grants in some cases. Results were shared and celebrated at another summit this month, where a second design sprint helped continuing and new action teams plan their next five months. Another summit is being scheduled for September. “We’ve found the five-month sprints work very well,” said Jane Sundmacher, Executive Director for the Northern Michigan CHIR. “Residents and partners are eager to sign on for a short-term commitment by implementing the workplans they’ve collaboratively developed at the summits. The approach unleashes creativity and innovation while assuring accountability.”  


Next Stop, Learning as we Go 

In both centralized and decentralized systems work, there is a shared commitment to learning from the work as it is implemented and sharing that learning across a system. In this way, people working in the system can become more attuned to how the system is shifting so that actions can get more and more wise and impactful over time. How we “learn as we go” will be the focus of the final blog in this series.  


Micro Actions 

The first leverage point in any systems change work is always you. You don’t need to be a part of a large initiative to begin to think differently and contribute to systems change: 

  • Try something that inspires more engagement and alignment within your organization like an “intra”preneurship design challenge that incentivizes employee innovation around organizational goals.   
  • Get to know how your existing work fits in or aligns with the work of others around the same problem. Where are you complementary? Where are you competing or overlapping? Explore what you can do to tune up your work to be in greater alignment.  
  • Start your next design challenge with the question “How might we…?” 


Freya Bradford is the Director of Systems Change and Learning at Rotary Charities of Traverse City. You can reach her at

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