By: Kevin Vu, IMAGO Summer Fellow 2021

Unbeknownst to me, my first encounter with systems thinking started at a very young age.  In one of my first memories, I was exposed to the topic when I watched my first movie in theatres before reaching the tender age of 3.  In the Lion King, Mufasa teaches Simba about the Circle of Life:

Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures — from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Simba: But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes, Simba. But let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we’re all connected in the great Circle of Life.1

Before we dive deeper into systems thinking, we must establish an understanding of what a system is and its various parts.  In the book Thinking in Systems, Donella H. Meadows has a simple yet efficient description: “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something… a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”2  In this classic scene from the Lion King, Mufasa pushes Simba to be a systems thinker in an attempt to make him self-aware about the connections and his part in the ecosystem.  

So What is Systems Thinking?

So we now have a basic understanding of a system. Yet, from the definition, it seems like such a broad subject. Anything with multiple parts can very well be a system: oceans, jungles, beaches, forests, rivers, cars, computers, assembly lines, families, schools, clubs, organizations, governments, cities, states, nations, organisms, companies, industries; the list can be endless.  Every day of their lives, people worldwide participate in a multitude of systems, yet they are not aware of their role in it; further, many do not understand the other parts of the system and how they operate.  Systems thinking allows people to understand these interconnections between elements, enabling them to adjust and work towards the desired purpose. Outside of systems thinking, most individuals have been conditioned to problem-solve conventionally and linearly. The power of systems thinking gives individuals/organizations the ability to understand their purpose and solve problems from a macro perspective (Refer to Table 1); by forcing them to reflect on their aspirational purpose (what they are striving to achieve) versus their current purpose (what they are actually achieving).3

The Five Disciplines

Table 1: Conventional Thinking vs. Systems Thinking. Source: Innovations Associates Organizational Learning

Systems Thinking was popularized in the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  In the book, Peter Senge illustrates how modern work environments have forced companies and individuals into siloes, forcing them to think conventionally in a way that hampers learning.  The current corporate system, in many ways, has taken away the drive of many employees, as many stick to a hierarchal structure that limits people to narrow job descriptions, forcing them into passionless positions that requires clocking in and out of work.  People are inherently driven to learn; however, this drive can be quickly snuffed in current work environments.  This natural thirst for learning is exemplified in children and toddlers, who spend their days picking up new words, tastes, opinions, and skills.  Too often, organizations and their managers become comfortable in conventional thinking and become accustomed to a reactive way of running their business.  This runs the risk of missing subtle problems, which can eventually compound into unsurmountable issues.  In response, Peter Senge disseminated the Five Disciplines that promotes learning and passion within organizations:

Figure 1
  1. Personal Mastery: The commitment to learning, growing, and doing your best to achieve the results that are important to a person and organization.  The two critical factors in this discipline are building self-awareness in (i) defining what is important to us and (ii) seeing the current reality for what it is.
  2. Mental Models: The filter each person/organization sees the world through.  This filter is made up of three components: judgments, assumptions, and life experience.  Understanding mental models can slowly adjust one’s perceptions to become more open-minded and question their thinking to lie in Creative Tension (refer to Figure 1). Senge theorized that when people hold a clear vision for where they want to be while simultaneously being candid on their current reality, creative tension will push people to adapt their mental models to implement that change.
  3. Team Learning: By learning and working in conjunction with other individuals, teams, and organizations, elements in a system can enter into an open dialogue that allows each part to question their biases and assumptions.  This allows each element to work/learn from one another, thus building a combined intelligence that promotes exponential growth in contrast to an individual effort. 
  4. Shared Vision: The result of team learning rather than an individual.  This allows each part of a system to take ownership of more than just their part and participate in a collective impact.
  5. Systems Thinking:  How all four of the disciplines tie together.  When a manager or organization integrates systems thinking into their daily routine, it allows them to understand interconnections and feedback loops in their approach, thus allowing them to react to situations and promote growth towards their desired goal.4
Figure 2: The Blind Men and the Elephant.
Source: OKANAGAN Edge Castanet Media

So Why Does This Matter?

During the first week of our fellowship, Smriti told us of the ancient Sufi parable about The Blind Men and the Elephant (refer to Figure 2).  This story ties back to systems thinking and illustrates the difficulties for people to see the bigger picture when a system is composed of a diverse number of stakeholders. “Each party touches a different part of the elephant and tends to assume that what they experience is the elephant instead of just one part of a more complex reality. Moreover, they tend to see reality in terms of what they are doing well, are rewarded for doing, and could do better if they had more resources.” In contrast, they fail to perceive the success and contributions of other parties that intersect with their goals in the system.5 Many parts of the same system attempt to work towards the same goal, yet because of sector dynamics, they end up putting up barriers that cause system tensions.6 Systems thinking allows individuals and organizations to step back from their siloed positions, understand how each element is connected, discover their collective impacts, and find new ways to work efficiently towards a common goal, rather than working against each other.  Peter Senge states,

The building of a shared vision lacks a critical underpinning if practiced without systems thinking…The problem lies not in shared visions themselves, so long as they are developed carefully. The problem lies in our reactive orientation toward current reality. Vision becomes a living force only when people truly believe they can shape their future. The simple fact is that most managers do not experience that they are contributing to creating their current reality. So they don’t see how they can contribute to changing that reality. [Believing that] Their problems are created by somebody “out there” or by “the system.”7

One of the most integral parts of systems thinking is for each element to become self-aware and to take responsibility for their respective roles and actions.  To achieve this self-awareness, each part of the system needs to understand the “systems story” and make the following three shifts in their beliefs:

  • From seeing just their part of the system to seeing more of the whole system—including why and how it currently operates and what is being done to change it.
  • From hoping that others will change to seeing how they can first change themselves.
  • From focusing on individual events (crises, fires) to understanding and redesigning the deeper system structures that give rise to these events.8
Figure 3: Iceberg Metaphor.
Source: Innovation Associates Organizational Learning

The Iceberg

One tool that allows us to develop an understanding of the “Bigger Picture” is the use of the Iceberg Metaphor (refer to Figure 3).  This tool identifies three inquiry levels that require individuals to form a specific question that prompts a particular action or response.  Moreover, the iceberg illustrates how events are linked together by trends & patterns (the most perceivable parts of the picture). However, through understanding systems structures, “the hidden 90% of the iceberg,” we understand the underlying issues behind a problem, as it shapes trends & patterns and causes the most considerable amount of damage.  Managers and organizations that think conventionally primarily focus their attention and time reacting to events, responding to an issue or crisis that is happening at the moment.  Through identifying trends and patterns, managers can anticipate future events.  Yet, these trends and patterns will continue to persist until the system structure is adapted.  By identifying these underlying issues (caused by pressures, policies, power dynamics, or perceptions), system thinkers can collaborate with its various parts to implement change.9 In the next section, I will illustrate how systems thinking was used to tackle an education crisis in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. 

Table 2: Systems Thinking for Collective Impact.
Source: Systems Thinking for Social Change

KnowledgeWorks/Strive Case Study

In order to achieve large-scale social change, broad cross-sector coordination is a necessity.  Yet, the social sector focuses on isolated intervention activities from individual organizations.  Through competitions and policies shaped for grants and funding, the culture of the social sector pits organizations against each other, forcing them to work in their self-interests rather than trying to work towards establishing systems-wide change.  A case study on collective impact serves as an example of how systems thinking contributed to solving system structure issues in the public education system that have thwarted policymakers for years.

Subsequent to World War II, the US was a global leader in secondary school education, with the highest high school graduation rate globally.  Yet in 2008, “the country dropped to 18th among the top 24 industrialized nations, with more than 1 million secondary students dropping out every year.”10  This was not for lack of effort, as teachers, administrators, and billions of dollars in government and nonprofit funding were poured into the sector.  Although there were definite improvements at individual schools, system-wide progress did not seem achievable.  Strive, a nonprofit subsidiary of KnowedlgeWorks, serves as an example that runs counter to the point that brought together local leaders to address the education crisis in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.  Strive used cross-sector coordination to improve student success across three large school districts, improving student success in dozens of critical areas and showing progress in 34 of 53 defined success indicators despite a recession and budget cuts.

Strive brought together 300 local leaders from private/corporate foundations, government, school districts, universities and community colleges, and various education NGOs, convincing them to abandon their individual agendas in favor of working towards a collective approach to addressing student achievement.  Through communication and structured meetings, the leaders realized that fixing one point in the educational system (i.e. after school programs) would not address much unless all other parts were addressed simultaneously.  Consequently, their collective mission aimed to coordinate improvements in every aspect of a young person’s life, from “cradle to career,” by creating a structured set of shared goals, measured consistently, for all participants across the entire educational community.  Through the four success conditions of Collective Impact (Refer to Table 2),  Strive implemented change in the system structure of their three greater school districts:

Participating organizations [were] grouped into 15 different Student Success Networks (SSNs) by type of activity, such as early childhood education or tutoring. Each SSN has been meeting with coaches and facilitators for two hours every two weeks for the past three years, developing shared performance indicators, discussing their progress, and most important, learning from each other and aligning their efforts to support each other.11

Figure 4

This model allowed for better cross-sector synergy and communication. Organizations could reach out to others in the network they knew would be better equipped to solve outstanding issues and simultaneously cease putting up the barriers of unintended competition traditionally caused when organizations work individually. Strive serves as an example of systems thinking at work, showing that social change can occur when a group of actors across various sectors commits to a collective impact towards a shared goal.12

Methodology and The Four-Stage Change Process

Stroh designed The Four Stage Change Process (see Figure 4) based on Senge’s Creative Tension Model.  In my opinion, this methodology was the most efficient in incorporating the Five Disciplines to standardize system thinking processes.  The Four-Stage Change Process can be reference below:

  1. Building a Foundation for Change and affirm their Readiness for Change
  2. Clarify Current Reality at all Levels of the Iceberg and Accept their Respective Responsibilities for Creating It.
  3. Make an Explicit Choice in Favor of the Aspiration they Espouse
  4. Begin to bridge the gap by focusing on high-leverage interventions, engaging additional stakeholders, and learning from experience.13

In the following sections, I will illustrate how I have seen IMAGO implement this methodology into their identity, approach to development, and my summer projects.

Systems Thinking Through an IMAGO Lens

Throughout this summer, I have seen how IMAGO has used a systems thinking approach to develop its identity as implementers that bridge the gap in the development space through its grassroots approach to consulting.  During her experience at the World Bank, Isabel noticed that there was a “missing middle” in the development space (illustrated in Figure 5 as a pyramid).  Although large institutions (represented at the top of the pyramid) have access to vast amounts of resources, their top-down approach in developing programs always seemed to run into issues of reaching the poor in the last mile.  Conversely, at the bottom of the pyramid, social enterprises and NGOs have the capacity, local knowledge, and innovation to help the poor that large institutions struggle to reach effectively. Yet, various cascading failures14 in the development sector have established barriers that prevent these bottom of the pyramid organizations from scaling up to enact system-wide change. 

Figure 5: The Missing Middle

Consequently, Isabel founded IMAGO to serve as “the missing middle” to bridge the gap between the top and bottom of the pyramid. Acting as intermediaries between these two parties, IMAGO helps improve the connections in the development sector to bring small grassroots social enterprises to scale, allowing them to implement social change.15  

Figure 6: The Flame Analysis. Source: IMAGO

The Flame Framework and Project MOVE

This summer, one of my projects was to develop a Needs Assessment Protocol for SEWA’s Project MOVE.16  This protocol would serve as a guide to help replicate the scaling-up of SEWA’s various social enterprises underneath SEWA’s umbrella. During this project, I became accustomed to IMAGO’s Flame Analysis (refer to Figure 6), the primary systems mapping tool used to diagnose an organization’s structure.  This section will elaborate on how the Flame Framework correlates with The Four-Stage Change Process and how I saw IMAGO leverage systems thinking through their Needs Assessment process for RUDI.17

Stage 1: Building a Foundation for Change and Affirm their Readiness for Change

IMAGO, SEWA, and RUDI developed the foundation for change during the grant proposal phase through their commitment to enact Project MOVE.  Engaging IMAGO in this process shows that the social enterprises are ready to shift their mental models.  

Stage 2: Clarify Current Reality at all Levels of the Iceberg and Accept their Respective Responsibilities for Creating It

In the Needs Assessment process, IMAGO first aims to diagnose the organizational flame.  This diagnosis is completed through a series of structured informational interviews of relevant stakeholders and an analysis of key organizational documents (i.e. financial documents, purchase agreements, contracts, etc.).  IMAGO evaluates the enterprise (RUDI) through four prisms (refer to Figure 7):

  1. Action
  • Identifies Symptoms
  • What is being done (organizational policies)
  1. Structure
    • Maps existing structure of the enterprise
    • Hierarchy or Systems
  2. Tone
    • Organizational Culture
    • How employees feel working at the institution
    • Personal interactions developed within the organization
  3. Identity
    • Care values/principles of the organization
    • Identifies the question: Why are you here?
Figure 7 RUDI Flame Analysis 
Source: IMAGO/RUDI Case

The evaluation of these four prisms is similar to the Iceberg Model. The assessment team identifies the observable (action and structure) and unobservable (tone and identity) root causes behind their organizational failures.  In doing so, IMAGO clarifies the “current reality” of the organization and ensures stakeholder awareness in their roles/responsibilities behind the flame.  During RUDI’s flame analysis (refer to figure 7), IMAGO discovered that the new board’s top-down approach to management was met with resistance by its collective members, accustomed to SEWA’s Gandhian ideals for collaborative goal-setting.  This realization of RUDI’s torn identity allowed IMAGO to recognize the unobservable root cause behind its organizational failures and illustrated how each stakeholder contributed to the organization’s current reality.

Stage 3: Make an Explicit Choice in Favor of the Aspiration they Espouse

Now that IMAGO has a clear picture of the root causes behind the organizational failures, they have a snapshot of the big picture and could design a project design that strengthens RUDI’s ability to carry out its transformation.  IMAGO uses a bottom-up approach during this design process and creates its plan based on Identity and Tone.  This process allows for co-creation and adaptive learning between all of the relevant stakeholders along the way.  By enabling the bottom of the pyramid stakeholders to provide input and co-create the project design for transformation, the bottom-up approach empowers system-wide change and institutional learning among all system elements.  During this phase, RUDI participated in organizational-wide team-building discussions and leadership coaching events that focused on creating an aspirational identity and tone for the organization.  Consequently, making the collective “I am RUDI” bottom-up approach to target setting allowed each stakeholder to take accountability for their part in the system and commit to change, empowering each stakeholder in their role while increasing revenue and growth simultaneously. 

Figure 8 Structure and Action Shifts

Stage 4: Begin to Bridge the Gap

This phase focuses on reflection, making shared goals in the social enterprise, building intervention activities to work towards the organization’s shared vision, and using adaptive learning to adjust accordingly.  Through this phase, RUDI took steps to adapt its structure and actions (refer to Figure 8)18.  This phase starts the process of self-awareness in a system, where the organization, as a whole, and the individuals within the system, agree to work towards system-wide changes.  The changes do not occur immediately, but through adaptive learning and analysis of causal feedback loops, individuals and organizations eventually address chronic issues in system structures that lead to social change.

  1. Allers, Roger and Minkoff, Rob (Directors). (1994). The Lion King. Walt Disney Pictures.
  2. Meadows, Donella H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, Vt. : Chelsea Green Pub., c2008.  
  3. Stroh, David Peter (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change: a Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results. White River Junction, Vermont : Chelsea Green Publishing, [2015].
  4.  Senge, Peter M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
  5.  Stroh, David Peter (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change: a Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results.
  6.  An example of system tensions can be seen in any classic work environment.  Where sales, marketing, engineering, and financial teams could only see their perspectives and work against each other, rather than trying to collaborate.  Another classic example, can be seen in the social sector where NGOs and social enterprises naturally compete against each other for funding or policy changes that favor them individually, instead of trying to collaborate to address sector-wide changes.
  7.  Senge, Peter M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.
  8. Stroh, David Peter (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change: a Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results.
  9. Stroh, David Peter (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change: a Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results.
  10. Kania, John and Kramer, Mark. (2011). Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innocation Review. Winter 2011. Leland Standord Junior University.
  11. Kania, John and Kramer, Mark. (2011). Collective Impact.
  12. Kania, John and Kramer, Mark. (2011). Collective Impact.
  13. Stroh, David Peter (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change: a Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results.
  14. In their Missing Middle Report, Isabel and Michael identified three categories that prevent bottom of the pyramid organizations from scaling-up: (i) market failures, (ii) government failures, (iii) and organizational weaknesses.
  15. Guerrero, Isabel and Walton, Michael (2018). The Missing Middle: Why Is It so Hard for Organizations at the Base of the Pyramid to Go to Scale?. Imago Global Grassroots. Retrieved from <>
  16. An ongoing grant project in collaboration with SEWA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The aim of the project is to develop protocols and processes for SEWA’s Enterprise Support System (ESS), thus allowing them to build the capacity of the members and organizations within the collective. 
  17. RUDI: A social enterprise that is part of the SEWA collective.  It stands for Rural Distribution it enables direct promotion/marketing for agricultural products that are produced through the Farmer’s Association. This enterprise allows for fair prices for retail networks and eliminates unfair practices of middlemen.

18. Sheth, Surili and Walton, Michael (2018). Value and Value Chains: the Intersection of Grassroots Mobilization and Enterprise Development in India. IMAGO Global Grassroots. Retrieved from 


Kevin Vu

Columbia | SIPA

IMAGO Summer Fellow 2021