“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

- Albert Einstein

To build a fair, thriving and resilient region we need to uproot the complex problems that hold our neighbors back. Many problems facing our region are not getting better, despite our best efforts. These are complex problems - like poverty, health inequities, homelessness, addiction, climate change - and they require a different approach. Most of our attention goes to addressing the consequences of these problems over and over again. For lasting change, we must address the causes. Systems change is a powerful paradigm to help us think and act differently in the face of complex problems and move the needle, for good. 

To change systems we work together to first accurately see the factors that hold a problem in place and then innovate to re-structure the system so it produces different results. 

What's a system?

A system is any set of things that are interconnected and produce a result. Many interconnected factors together sometimes produce results nobody wants - like obesity, or food waste. We are surrounded by systems everyday. The systems we are most interested in are macro-level systems that affect our community's wellbeing, including those that affect our access to food, education, nature, health care, housing, and more.


"A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system's objective."

- Donella Meadows

How do you change a system?

Systems change is both a process and an outcome. As a process, systems change includes working with others to more clearly see the factors that are contributing to a complex problem, in order to find places to intervene that will change the system so that it produces better results. Systems change processes are different from business as usual, and often involve shifting resources, power and mindsets to build a better future for all.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities shares a story of their role in helping to change the school food system in Michigan.

What does systems change look like?

As an outcome, systems change is a change in a structure or pattern that is aimed at the root causes of a complex problem and leads to long-lasting results.

Community-level systems change:

  • Cannot be achieved by one heroic individual or organization alone

  • Involves diverse teams that work together to see issues from many angles and perspectives

  • Gets upstream on complex problems, finding and addressing root causes

  • Uncovers strategic opportunities for change, "leverage points," that may be unexpected

  • Includes a variety of actions aimed at root causes and leverage points

  • Is best executed when a window of opportunity has opened - such as a change in political climate or a high profile case that has built public will for change

  • Fundamentally shifts the underlying structures that keep problems in place - including policies, practices, relationships, resources, power structures and mindsets

  • Considers the potential unintended consequences of actions

  • Prioritizes solutions for those most directly affected by an issue

  • Leads to long-lasting change that affects many

Our Tools for Systems Change


- Apply for a Seed Grant to support the convening, engagement, investigation and planning work essential for systems change. 

- Become a Changemaker Fellow and take the lead in learning and sharing new ideas that will help our community change systems.

- Apply for a Systems Change Accelerator grant to support collaborative initiatives that target the root causes of complex problems.


- Put together a diverse team and investigate the local context of a complex community problem you care about in a free 11-week Systems Practice Course by the Omidyar Group and +Acumen. We provide consultant support to teams.

- Use and build on the toolkit for systems change.

- Develop your capacity to build adaptive workplaces that create the conditions for change with Leadership Coaching.

- We have an ever-evolving calendar of learning experiences for changemakers - see what’s coming up.


- Connect with other systems change agents in a Systems Change Community of Practice (open to grantees). 

Connect with networks in your interest area to build coalitions for change.

- Find other systems-thinkers on our Northern Michigan Changemakers on Slack channel.