Leaders committed to social change increasingly recognize the importance of “getting the whole system in the room.” This means identifying the diverse stakeholders who impact and are affected by a problem and creating forums where they can meet and share their respective points of view. Indeed there are many approaches to bringing such people together, including Future Search, the World Café, and Open Space. We call these approaches acting systemically because they facilitate communication among a wide range of stakeholders who might not have previously spoken or listened to each other.

While acting systemically is essential to creating meaningful solutions to social problems, it is best done in tandem with thinking systemically. The reason is that all stakeholders not only share a common aspiration, such as ending homelessness, but also have individual commitments that often run counter to their espoused collective commitment. For example, a shelter director might want to end homelessness but feel compelled to maintain 100% bed utilization to ensure ongoing funding. A concerned citizen might want to end homelessness as long as new affordable housing is not in their backyard.

When you combine acting systemically with thinking systemically, people discover how their competing commitments can lead them to both hinder and be hindered by each other’s efforts. Perhaps even more importantly people begin to see how they unwittingly undermine their own best intentions through their short-term actions.

When people discover their own responsibility for perpetuating a problem, they are more motivated to change and take actions in support of their higher aspirations. They are moved to consider the question, “What might we have to give up as an individual organization in order to serve the system as a whole?”

Supported by these insights, people might choose among three options:

1.    They might alter their organization’s mission to better align with their espoused purpose while still maintaining the economic viability of the organization. For example, one shelter director shifted the focus of her organization from housing people temporarily to building permanent housing because she realized that simply managing a shelter was not ultimately in her best interest or those of her clients.

2.    They might streamline or even close their own organization and shift its services to other organizations in the system who are better positioned to deliver them. The same shelter director outsourced many of her organization’s previous services to other organizations in order to fulfill her shelter’s new mission.

3.    They may choose to continue what they have been doing – albeit with a better understanding of their organization’s impact on the system as a whole.

Developing the awareness and will to make such fundamental individual changes comes from thinking systemically. Developing the ability to implement these changes in service of the whole is a result of acting systemically.