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Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results
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Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  327 ratings  ·  32 reviews
Donors, leaders of nonprofits, and public policy makers usually have the best of intentions to serve society and improve social conditions. But often their solutions fall far short of what they want to accomplish and what is truly needed. Moreover, the answers they propose and fund often produce the opposite of what they want over time. We end up with temporary shelters th ...more
Paperback, 264 pages
Published October 16th 2015 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company (first published September 24th 2015)
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Jan 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Using this with a class of only a dozen students in an upper-level course on Applied Social Policy in Portland, Maine this term, and I think it provides a clear model that students can use to work with a local "community partner" to achieve some positive social change. The best systems thinking on social and local issues gets us to root-cause analysis, and I think Stroh succeeds in giving us a way to map complex social problems that does that.

My Master's thesis adviser was Walter Buckley, a soc
Sean Estelle
This book is worth reading, despite the slightly lower rating. There are lots of good suggestions, and it reinforces much of what I've already read in the network theory realm. But it is jargony and hard to follow at some points, and would probably be difficult for folks to absorb if they aren't already versed in the language of systems. I recommend Donella Meadows' "System Thinking: A Primer" if you're looking for something more introductory, then this for examples with case studies and in dept ...more
Teo 2050


Stroh DP (2015) (06:17) Systems Thinking for Social Change - A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results

• What You Will Learn
• • Use systems thinking instead of more conventional linear thinking to address chronic, complex social problems.
• • Apply systems thinking as both a set of principles and a particular group of analytic tools.
• • Integrate systems thinking in
Nathan Surendran
Mar 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'll write a better review later, but the best single thing I took away from this book was a very simple observation. I've heard in many different settings the discussion of the problems of not getting 'exponential change' in terms of not perceiving negative changes in systems we rely on such as ecosystems until it's too late (e.g. Albert Bartlett's lecture:, or the 1 minute 'impossible hamster' clip from the New Economics Foundation:

There is a simp
Otto Lehto
Jul 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
Not what I was looking for. This is partially on me, since the "practical" part should have given it away. But the practical value of the book seems limited. Although it is grounded in solid theory and some interesting empirical examples, I did not enjoy the book on any level. It is full of jargon heavy consult speak and its intended audience is public and private management workshops. The main point of those workshops with their brainstorming sessions seems to me to be to support the coffee cat ...more
Nov 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Good, thoughtful, nearly step-by-step guide to solving 'wicked' social problems.
'A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.'
Andrew Moore
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If you have ever looked around at the world and said to yourself, "I feel like we can be doing better than THIS," then you should read this book.
Bryan Sebesta
Nov 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I give this book five stars. That is not because there weren't dry parts–in fact, given that I have little training or background for social change writ large, that was almost inevitable. But that is due to my own lack of training. I could sense, reading this book, that I was learning something momentous. Consider:

Building more homeless shelters is a short-term fix that diminishes the problem's visibility and makes participants feel good, but doesn't ultimately solve anything. The real
An Te
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
A helpful primer to get readers to think outside the box. Well, if you've ever worked and thought you could easily get to the nub of a problem or even evaluate your work in a meaningful sense and found yourself coming up with the short straw and looking a bit silly, then this is the book for you.
Thinking in systems is an art. Why? As you draw on so many disciplines, you soon begin intuiting, almost by feel, which factors do (or not) feature in an answer to a delimited question. The philosophy i
Peter O'Brien
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
“Becoming a deeply skilled systems thinker takes time, but it is definitely possible. We’ve learned that, on one level, systems thinking is child’s play: We are born with the capacity to see connections and understand (though not necessarily tolerate) time delay. We’re also learned that the very work of applying systems thinking tools and practices not only hones that capacity but also shapes who we are and how we see the world. This orientation in turn increases our effectiveness in applying th ...more
Jul 02, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While the book is plainly written and mostly accessible, that serves more to highlight its weaknesses than its strengths. It's a very repetitive text, perhaps presuming that people won't read cover to cover? It was a slog in doing so.

That said, the ideas are fairly compelling and I'm definitely interested to learn more about systems thinking in other books. I just hope that the other books don't rely so much on visual maps that are extremely difficult to understand. Maybe there's something about
Connie Liu
May 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book presents a clear picture of systems thinking in action by referencing examples in everything from education to homelessness to crime. Although dry at times, these examples help propel the book forward and serves as a good introduction to systems thinking. However, I do finish the book still a bit uncertain about how to apply systems thinking to create real change: often people are only brought together to rethink their role in a system in the face of a catastrophe that catalyzes this r ...more
Cath Ennis
I struggled a bit with this book - I just couldn't quite engage with the text as deeply as I wanted, and kept finding myself skimming over things and having to go back and re-read them. However, I can't really pinpoint why, as there's nothing overtly wrong with the book and parts of it were very interesting and useful. I did find the diagrams to be a bit too confusing, and perhaps there were too many details of specific projects rather than more general syntheses, but overall it probably just wa ...more
This is a good book, very practical. I liked the tools for classifying situations based on what kind of feedbacks (reinforcing or balancing) can be seen found the system, such as "fixes that backfire", "shifting the burden", "Accidental Adversaries", the bathtub and more.

I also enjoyed the emphasid of seeing one's own role en i more objective way. Making aware both the positive and possible harms one brings to the system, and building a realistic way to take respondibility for the outcome.

It s
Jul 03, 2017 rated it liked it
First, full disclosure. I picked this up because it was recommended to me to help guide my work with a non-profit. I read some, skimmed some, skipped some of the book.

On the plus side it has some very useful information about how to think about "big picture" solutions to to pervasive problems. And I think a full understanding of the material would help people facilitate change in an organization's thinking. However, it was pretty dry, even dull to read. So, if you're interested in helping an org
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: rmtd, sc-po
Alright, so I learnt a few new things related to what can System Thinking be about, the issues it can tackle and probably of few hints at how homelessness might be better cornered. However, I cannot confidently say that I understood the diagrams.

This is more a guide book to a "System Thinker", not someone's first book to read about system thinking and that's my mistake !

Not sure if I'll dig more about this topic ...
Scott Ford
Jul 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent introduction to system's mapping for better organizational design. Focused on such community concerns as education, health care and homelessness, this book guides facilitators through system mapping by providing specific techniques and demonstrating their application through real-world example.
Dec 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The recommendation to read an introductory systems thinking books before tackling this one really isn't necessary. This book does a great job of explaining our unintended consequences as we try to make social change happen within their complicated ecosystems.

A must-read for people working in the social impact space.
Jul 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not the most engaging read, but as a educational resource it was clear, concise and illuminating. Would be interesting for (at least) anyone working on large scale issues, anyone in social policy or programming or NGO's and the humanitarian and development sector at large.
Roman Leventov
May 22, 2020 rated it it was ok
Little novelty apart from the description of the system archetypes (described in many places, including and quite a lot of self-repetition. ...more
Rhys Lindmark
Sep 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
Pretty meh. Felt waaaayyyy too much like a consulting guide. And weirdly, there were only ~5 case studies that they kept coming back to.

I like the idea of expanding on systems traps, but this wasn't it.
Rebecca Epting
Nov 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent book that really made me think about the deeper issues that impact society’s systems, and the reasons why there are so many people doing great things, yet we often see little change in society’s problems.
Apr 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: own
I don't feel like I learned much of anything in this book that wasn't covered better by Donella Meadow's book.
Nov 08, 2018 rated it liked it
bathtub thinking aside, it really isn't tenable for a reader of this book to build these charts.
Sep 11, 2019 rated it liked it
Good introduction to one method of systems thinking, extremely repetitive though.
Nov 17, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a book for class and is a readable, practical application of systems theory. It gives helpful tactics for addressing wicked problems. Plus, lots of charts.
Nov 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Love it

A better way of thinking for big changes.
Everything is broken down into interconnected pieces to Witch each is important to improve so the bigger picture can be changed.
Melchor Moro-Oliveros
Jul 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: letti-2019
I will not lie. This book is hard to read at some points and not adequate for beginners in the subject of Systems Thinking. If you are a beginner, read first “Thinking in Systems”, by Donella H. Meadows. Having said that: this book is an excellent complement to “Thinking in Systems”. It includes a lot of good thoughts, suggestions and advices as well as a set of patterns on how systems usually respond to stimuli. And all this on the base of not technological problems, usually easier to be quanti ...more
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book really gave a very practical frame work for how to think about, evaluate, and solve problems on a big scale. I think reading this book and applying the principles can help you out on any scale however. The forces, such as unintended consequences and reinforcing feedback loops) that make problems so persistent apply to problems big and small.
Chelsea Lawson
Apr 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Way too theoretical for me, and the systems diagrams too complex. In most of the examples I was thinking how you can't really get all those stakeholders in a room to change their mental models and fix the problem. And I think the author overestimates the power of awareness.. people are pretty aware as it is, but don't have the energy or ownership to take on a system change.

However, it contained a helpful overview of how to construct a systems diagram of a social problem.
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