Blog: Disrupting Philanthropy and Business in Michigan with Systems Thinking


Imagine that you’re leading an organization or a project dedicated to bringing high-speed Internet to public schools and underserved areas in Detroit. Rather than approach the project from a traditional perspective, you could look at it in a more comprehensive manner.

You should begin with the understanding that bridging the digital divide between those with and those without adequate connection to the Internet is more than a technology issue; it is a socio-economic issue, it is a policy issue, and it is an urban planning issue. In short, it is a system issue that requires a systems thinking approach — a business management discipline that examines the linkages and interactions between all of the components that comprise and influence a defined structure.

The project would require new data, new cross-sector partnerships, intimate knowledge of local policy, and collaboration with public-private partnerships. It would require an understanding of community and resident needs and future student populations. You would need to be a systems thinking stakeholder to in order to efficiently create the change want to see.

At the highest levels, the systems thinking approach utilizes complex strategies, tools, and protocol in order to develop an in-depth understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems, such as socioeconomics, urban development, social investment, and regional business economies. Very often the goal of the approach is to develop strategies to scale a project, develop a system of metrics, or further create impact.

Taking a realistic view of the entire organization, strategy, or initiative, as well as its processes and outcomes in relation to the environment in which it operates, creates solutions. This process provides a means of understanding and analyzing the organization as a complex composition of many interconnected systems (human and non-human) that need to work together for the whole to function successfully.

When businesses, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits have a better understanding of the system, they are then better able to identify the leverage points that lead to reaching strategic goals such as creating scalable programs and innovative products.

Over the last decade, Michigan’s social enterprise space has been learning how direct investment and systems change work together. The work that our business, nonprofit, and foundation leaders face today is more complex than ever and requires a set of tools and a framework designed to address the complexity inherent when innovations are integrated into existing systems, like school districts, social service organizations, health departments, and more.

These insights, and the fact that so many of our regional social challenges remain intractable, should lead all of our sectors here in Michigan to try to better understand what critical levers need to be pulled when trying to change systems and address emerging community challenges.

In order to accomplish this type of success in Michigan and in core urban hubs like Detroit, I believe that leaders and change agents must consider at least these three key characteristics to their approach:

  • Utilize the Systems Thinking View: An individual or organization must be able to put forward a new solution or set of solutions to solve a pressing social challenge. This sounds obvious, but I’m suggesting that organizational theories of change, business plans, and other foundational materials need to reflect systems thinking. The most important tool in the leader’s suite is the ability to embed the solution into the larger system being targeted.
  • Create a Project-based Network: Maintaining transparent and compelling communications both internally among collaborative stakeholders and externally with key audiences is crucial to the success of a systems change effort.
  • Focus on Measurement, Evaluation, and Outcomes: Distinct from the place-setting research and analysis mentioned above, measurement and evaluation is about creating consistent and ongoing data to guide strategy and increase accountability. This is critical for Michigan entrepreneurs and how we develop a sustainable model for emerging economies and new revenue generating sectors.

As both business and community challenges grow more complex and are further tied to the success of employees and residents, we must change the way we approach solutions.

I believe that regional leaders, entrepreneurs, impact investors as well as progressive nonprofit organizations must continue to examine and understand the systems we are trying to change as a whole, not just the narrow entrepreneurial opportunity in front of us or the surface level challenges of the moment. This approach, if nothing else, will give us a greater sense of self as a region and allow us to drive continued innovation and equity for our cities and shared community.

Chris Polk is a senior fundraising executive and principal at Detroit-based Forté Management Group Inc. an advisor at Boulevard, and a frequent contributor to DBusiness Daily News.

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