Exploring Root Causes and Systemic Change

The Social Investment Consultancy works cross sector to support organisations to deepen their impact, exploring the complexities of the systems we operate in, and how best we can impact on the root causes of issues to bring about positive changes in society. In particular, drawing upon the latest theories in systems thinking, our Exploring Root Causes and Systemic Change workshop brings together organisations from all sectors to delve into our core values, and how we can each structure ourselves best to affect meaningful change.

Our house rules are fairly unique. Although attending as part of their professional roles, we ask everyone to leave their organisational hats (and allegiance) at the door. Exploring systemic change is complex and challenging, and often needs to be critical. We believe the most productive conversations happen when people feel open to think as individuals rather than as organisations, and when they’re given the space to step outside of their day jobs, to really analyse the impact of our work.

What do we mean by systemic change?

Systems thinking is one theoretical approach often used by academics and organisations to try to make sense of the complex reality of our interactions as a society. With its roots in biology, a system can simply be defined as “a set of things – people, cells, molecules or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own patterns of behaviour over time.”[1] Systemic change, therefore, is an intentional process that looks to bring about change within the way a system operates, through changing its underlying structure or functions. Many charities, especially campaigning and advocacy focused organisations, will try to build models to make sense of a system, in order to identify key leverage points for change within them. Theories of change, for example, are attempts to simplify and model how change can be brought about within a particular system of society.

Of course, there are limitations to such types of modelling, so we find it is always useful to bear the following two quotes in mind:

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” George E.P. Box

“None of us see the system. We see our own part based on our background and history. And we all think we see the most crucial part.” Peter Senge, Accelerate

When we work on systemic change, it is always a conversation, and a debate. There can never be any right answers. Instead, we believe the value is in the process of the discussion, the cross collaboration, and the sharing of experiences.

So, why isn’t poverty history?

We began our day with a discussion of ones of the most famous campaigns in history. Many of us will remember the television adverts, the bracelets, the music festivals and the promise to Make Poverty History. Whilst the campaign made some progress against its aims, subsequent analyses have asked the question: did the campaign go deep enough it’s the root causes of poverty? 2011’s Finding Frames Report[2] by original coordinating body BOND make some suggestions that, in fact, Make Poverty History may have inadvertently reinforced some of the key issues that create inequality and poverty in the first place. Did the widespread use of celebrities and adverts unintentionally promote materialistic values, and values of self-interest? Did the selling of wristbands reinforce consumerism, and the idea that money donation and the free market economy can alone end poverty? There are people with opinions on all sides of this debate, but it is important that we at least ask the questions. What are the root causes of an issue, and how can we most effectively tackle these to bring about change?

How do we start modelling a system?

We use two key systems modelling approaches to introduce individuals to systems thinking: problem tree analysis and the iceberg model.



Problem tree analysis

A problem tree starts with the key issue you are working on, and asks you to list comprehensively all the causes that lead to that issue occurring. Working back through each of the causes to find their own causes, a problem tree is an approach to modelling that should allow you to analyse the full external environment within which an issue occurs, in order to really it break down, and identify what you think the root causes are.

To introduce it, we used a basic example. Say that employee A is not taking a lunch break. What are the causes of this? Perhaps employee A has too much work, or does not have enough money for lunch. Perhaps there are no suitable places to eat lunch nearby, or employee A doesn’t have anyone to take a lunch break with. By identifying these initial causes, each of them can then again be broken down into cause areas, and your crucial intervention points can then be mapped in order to most effectively change the issue at its heart.

The second model we use is the iceberg model, and Donella Meadows’ 12 leverage points theory that sits alongside it.


Iceberg model example. Source: NWEI

The iceberg model analyses an issue that occurs at the tip of the iceberg, building the underlying causes as the part of the iceberg that sits under the surface. It asks us to think about 3 key questions: what are the key patterns and trends that feed into this issue occurring, what are the underlying structures and influencers that are causing it, and what values and beliefs are holding the current system together? Again, a simple example based on catching a cold can be seen within NWEI’s example above.

Donella Meadows extends out the model by identifying 12 key leverage points – three at each level – each with increasing effectiveness at changing the overall functioning of the system. Visually, it’s well represented in Smart CSOS’s see-saw diagram below; the deeper your leverage point, the more power it has to change the system as a whole.


Donella Meadows’ 12 leverage points. Source: Smart CSOS Reimagining Activism


“TSIC’s Exploring Root Causes and Systemic Change workshop really showed me the relevance, complexity and need for this kind of thinking. It doesn’t matter which sector you are in, but rather your awareness and desire to make change happen.”

 So what should this mean for my organisation?

Thinking about and trying to map the systems you are operating in is only the beginning, and is an ongoing conversation that all organisations should be having in order to try and understand their impacts, both positive and negative, on the society we all live in.

But when it comes down to practical ways that individuals and organisations can bring about change, we ask people and organisations to go through the following thinking processes:

  1. Think about the real impact you are having – What are the key systems we are operating in? What are our key leverage points that we could impact to bring about positive change, and what negative impacts are we having that may be reinforcing key issues and problems?
  2. What aren’t we thinking about that we could be? Ensuring you have enough time to take a step back and critically evaluate your role, and do some blue sky thinking, is something that is rarely prioritised by organisations. But it can be one of the most valuable and impactful processes you can go through. Some example questions to get you started:
    1. What if money was of no importance?
    2. What would you, as a person, change about your organisation?
    3. What key challenges have you faced that have prevented you from being more successful in achieving your goals?
    4. If you were starting from scratch, how would you build your organisation to achieve your goal – both at a strategic and an operational level?
    5. What do I really do? Where is a difference being made, and what is the real work that matters here?
  3. Setting changemaking goals – Take time to outline 3 short term and 3 long term changes you could implement to be more impactful and systemic, both at an individual role and broader organisational level. Integrate these into your overall objectives, and link them into where you think the key leverage points for change are.


“Going into the theory of systemic change with TSIC was fascinating, and so well broken down and explained. The visioning and changemaking really helped me to think what changes are needed, and what I could change.”


The Social Investment Consultancy provides a number of general and bespoke services for organisations wanting to align themselves more towards root causes and systemic change. These include public and in-house organisational workshops, systemic auditing and strategy development, integrating systems thinking into MEL, and systemic changemaking consultancy. For more information, please contact Bonnie Chiu





[1] Donella Meadows, 2010

[2] http://www.framingmymessage.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Finding-Frames-New-ways-to-engage-the-UK-public-in-global-poverty-Bond-2011.pdf

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