Principles That Guide Systems Change

Navigate the Systems Change Toolbox

Learn five principles about the nature of systems change and how you can influence it.

Five Principles of Systems Change

Systems change can seem like a sea of choices and connections. You may be uncertain which decision to make and how to affect change.

The toolbox simplifies systems change by framing it within broad principles. Use these insights to understand how systems work and how you can influence the systems you’re working within.

The five principles of systems change are informed by theories of system thinking and the on-the-ground work of the National Fund’s regional collaboratives. Keep the principles in mind as you use the toolbox.


1. Systems change is about problem solving.

Changing the system is not your goal. Rather, it’s a means to solving your problem. Your initiative may change how the system functions, such as through policy change or resource allocation, but you should be clear that the changes are being made to solve specific problems, in order to achieve better outcomes for workers, businesses, and communities.


2. Direction matters more than speed.

Don’t rush. Deliberating over which direction to go is time well spent. This is why the toolbox provides guidance to help you focus on problem structuring and thinking before you act.


3. Systems change is not a cure-all.

Don’t make change for the sake of it. Not all change is destined to play out positively. Determine why systems change is needed and anticipate potential negative consequences.


4. There is no one right approach.

There is no single best approach to systems change, and solutions must be tailored to local situations. Don’t let people outside your local ecosystem define your problems or solutions. (Even a “best practice” might not be appropriate in your particular case.) Local actors are usually better able to understand local conditions and challenges and what can or should be done to change them.


5. Adapt to a complex world.

Be flexible when circumstances change and remember that change is continuous. Know that you won’t always have all the information you need about a situation or be able to predict the effects of a decision. Learn how to become comfortable with uncertainty and to make informed decisions.