Building a Shared Understanding of How Systems Work

I’ve just returned from the kick-off gathering of a collective impact initiative with the United Way of Greater New Bedford. A series of three community gatherings for input (as described in this blog) and other meetings with stakeholders led us to focus of how can we help families thrive, with a focus in one neighborhood. We just kicked off a “Catalyst Team,” which included about 25 people representing many facets of the community and various roles/perspectives about the challenges families face in the neighborhood. For example, participants included neighborhood residents and leaders, as well as people from the school system, police, immigrant assistance, the city’s economic development department, social service agencies, housing authority, local businesses, health care, the local leadership development program, and more.

Kick-Off Gathering of United Way Collective Impact Initiative

One of the key things we wanted to do with this diverse group was to dive into exploring the dynamics of the systems that affect families. Many factors and elements affect families and children’s ability to thrive. For example, when students are in trouble, there is often trouble at home too – a parent lost a job or in danger of losing their housing. Children thrive in stable and nurturing environments, yet families can struggle to provide this when they are in poverty and underemployed. (In New Bedford, 70% of students are low income and about 30% of children are below the poverty line.)

We created an interactive way that the group could explore how all of these aspects relate, as well as learn more about the current situation in the community. Building on the work of the Kirwin Institute, we picked 10 “opportunity structures” – these are key things a family/person needs to have to be able to succeed:

opportunity structuresFor each one, we gathered data about the current status in the neighborhood/city, from a recent report as well as from the input of a recent neighborhood gathering. Each list was printed and pasted Mapping cardsonto a color card – one color for each topic. We numbered the topics 1-10.

Participants were each given a card (i.e., topic) and asked to stand up, mill around and then find a person with a different color card. Each person shared the data about their respective topic and then the pair discussed the relationships between the two topics. For example:

  • You need reliable child care to hold down a decent job
  • Access to amenities and local businesses in a healthy neighborhood helps nurture a healthy home environment

People wrote the connections on post-it notes with the numbers for reference and we collected these to post on a large wall poster mapping the many inter-relationships. We rotated the pairs three times generating lots of conversations.

This photo illustrates how many inter-relationships there are among these elements.

Systems map
In reflecting on the exercise, one participant said “I realized how everything is related to everything else.” Exactly.

This was only the beginning of a conversation and my sense is that there is much to mine from this exercise. A few takeaways for me were:

  • The need for humility when intervening in any system. We struggle to hold or take in the level of complexity so it is natural to want to simplify down to something clear and actionable we can do. This video from my colleague Joe Hseuh makes this point well. Yet, when people come into a system/community wanting to help and pick one fairly discrete “actionable” thing we can focus on, we often miss all the other things that relate to that thing. The long-time residents in this New Bedford neighborhood had seen many discrete initiatives come and go, without fully taking root or building the capacity of the community and its institutions to succeed.
  • The relationships between things matter. One of the participants said, we are good at researching and putting resources into things, but not good at a systems approach. Many resources and organizations are working to help people break they cycle of poverty, yet programs focused on one dimension such as jobs may not fully work if people do not have transportation to those jobs or the skills to thrive in them.
  • The potential for solutions that address multiple problems. I’m excited to see what can emerge from these conversations as this diverse a group continues to explore all of these elements together. What I sense is that the strategies and actions they ultimately decide to pursue (both together and in their organization’s work) will generate positive impacts to multiple aspects of the system.

An example of an initiative that illustrates this is the Family Independence Initiative working in the Fairmount Corridor in Boston, which “helps to catalyze networks of families and friends who work together to improve their economic mobility and generally support each other.” They support each other in saving money, achieving personal goals, practicing self-care and doing home improvement projects. From the opportunity structures perspective, this one initiative helps address:

  • Ways to build wealth
  • Healthy and safe home
  • Personal and collective leadership
  • Social networks and peer support

Close to 800 households in the region have been involved in the program and average increase in households savings is 210%, as page 14 of this Corridor of Promise report from the Boston Foundation has more details.

4 thoughts on “Building a Shared Understanding of How Systems Work

  1. Thanks for the inspiration. I can see how this hands-on activity is applicable in many stages of building shared understanding of a system… as a beginning and to introduce systemic strategic thinking.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Sharon. I appreciated seeing how you are approaching complex systems work. We also do that kind of mapping of current initiatives and gaps and overlaps. It’s helpful for people to have that visual. Some groups want to do that mapping right off the bat, but we’ve found that, like you are doing, it’s real value is to link it directly to the causal factors underpinning a problem, as well as identify the resources/assets that can support the healthy state and solutions.

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