Understand the System

Understand the System  

Before we go about changing a system, it’s important that everyone understands how the system currently works — the relationships between critical stakeholders, what’s driving current impact and where the levers for change are. Since each of us is a part of the system, our actions have impact. Seeing and understanding this is the work of this building block, along with developing a shared vision for how it could be different. This building block will help us move forward in a more collaborative way and shed light on who we should engage along the way.

Shifting perspective to see the whole

Effective Collaborative Action starts with a clear issue that needs to be addressed and the premise that a multi-stakeholder approach could provide the best solution.

Once this is clear, we need to understand the system so we can figure out where and how to solve the issue. First, we must acknowledge that we typically operate in a variety of realities and perspectives, usually isolated and disconnected. In any system, there are different stakeholders with different visions, interests and power relationships. Through Effective Collaborative Action, we aim to shift from working separately to working as part of a system collective so we can take on the journey of transformation and collaborative action together.

In this building block, we focus on learning to think and feel as part of a system, prioritizing relationships and links to other programs and partners and recognizing the importance of including their perspectives. By coming together with multiple stakeholders who are part of the system, we are better equipped to see our role in the system, get clarity on how the system works and identify what levers exist to change it for the better.

After understanding the system, stakeholders can define the boundary of the system they are seeking to change. Often this process involves zooming out from the initial scope, like from a landscape to global markets, and then zooming back in to define boundaries.

In short, this Building Block helps us see new and different ways of thinking, acting and being. Often new partnerships and alliances form alongside the collaborative effort. This is welcomed!



This visual shows there are three key areas to consider when working systemically – understanding the system, convening and ways of working. Drawing by Carlotta Cataldi © UNDP.


Understand the System

Backbone Support

1.    A well resourced Backbone Support team with a work plan containing clear roles and responsibilities

2.    A stakeholder engagement strategy that meaningfully includes marginalized peoples

3.    An analysis of the situation and system which the effort is trying to impact

4.    A shared vision and direction for the change sought

5.    A secured budget for the next phase (or a fundraising proposal if needed)

6.    A plan for reviewing progress, identifying quick wins and demonstrating value to partners

Stakeholder Actions

1.    A clear understanding of the system dynamics, the situation and the potential future

2.    An initial pathway for next steps

3.    A core group of stakeholders that are energized by opportunities

4.    A shared vision and direction, as well as a set of personal connections to this vision.

Return to Main Page