Systems Thinking

What is Systems Thinking?

One basic organizing principle of our world is a system–a group of interrelated parts that come together to form a more complex, functioning whole that serves a specific purpose. Systems Thinking is a way of looking holistically at the bigger picture of how these systems fit into our day-to-day lives, how they behave, and how we can manage them. In the international development and adjacent fields, the work that we do “on the ground” to implement programs and activities is always connected to a bigger picture than just the implementing staff and beneficiaries. These activities are interlinked with and dependent on parties and factors generally including but not limited to donors, politicians and the political landscape, resource allocation, and other organizations on the ground doing similar fieldwork. We could have the perfect intervention design that never gets implemented properly or to its full potential because of these dependencies. So when we think about our theories of change for a program, why wouldn’t we include these pieces if our success hinges on many pieces aligning? 

Why should we implement systems thinking?

At Headlight, we want to encourage our clients to look at the bigger picture with all of its nuance to understand as much as possible when learning and making decisions. As we understand better where potential barriers may be, we can try to plan ahead of time to mitigate challenges. And we can use this knowledge to make better recommendations for adaptation. Seeing things at a systems level also allows us the time it might take for changes to occur. For example, behavioral changes about issues surrounding gender don’t happen overnight; culture change takes time, and by using systems mapping, we can start to think about our logic multiple years out across multiple parties. We can also get a better sense of which parties have control over what actions, and what actions are farther out in their realms of direct influence, indirect influence, and realm of interest but not control. This understanding can propel us to change expectations or leverage influence on other parties when needed to create a desired change.

Our Systems Thinking Service Offerings:

Headlight provides a variety of tools that enable clients to take an action-oriented look at the systems in which they operate. System thinking tools and processes help identify programming dependencies, potential areas for collaboration with like-minded actors and opportunities to achieve compound outcomes from complimentary programming. Systems thinking outputs also provide a more nuanced, operational view of the context, time required for changes to occur, and action plans for various scenarios that contribute to more effective, sustainable development systems and gains. Headlight’s Systems Thinking services include, but are not limited to:

  • Implementing and facilitating the use of stakeholder mapping, social network analysis, interdependency maps, and stakeholder management systems to improve relationships management, collaborative programming, sustainable handoffs, and understanding of influence and access; 
  • Supporting the design and iterative use of Systems-Based Theories of Change for better articulation of what is in a client’s manageable interests, sphere of influence, and long-term goals with dependencies on other stakeholder to achieve systems-level outcomes;
  • Implementing causal loop modeling to inform program/activity;
  • Facilitating scenario planning for strategic resource decisions, sustainability planning, and/or tailored context monitoring in support of adaptive management; and, 
  • Value chain analysis, process monitoring of impacts, and much more. 


The host of tools mentioned above allow us to facilitate different parts of Systems Thinking. 

A Systems-Based Theories of Change is a process that embeds systems thinking tools within program design to clarify all the conditions, relationships, and behavior change necessary to achieve sustainable outcomes. It also helps us understand our evidence, contextual implications, and decision-making processes, thus enabling adaptation. Instead of using the “if, then, because” formats that traditional theories of change feature, our Systems-Based Theories of Change break away from this to address the components with more nuance and complexity. We also offer a variety of fit-for-purpose workshops to identify tipping points, progress markers, ideal states, and red flags. Each of these components can be done separately or combined, but all of them help our clients plan ahead and respond adaptively during implementation.

Stakeholder mapping allows clients to identify all of the parties that affect their work, both directly and indirectly. While one missing party may seem small, leaving out a player can have huge effects on implementation. Taking it one step further, we can use social network analysis to learn how these stakeholder parties are connected to each other, which party is most central to the process, and which parties have the most influence over the full picture. 

Similarly, Interdependency maps show us where it will take coordinating multiple actors to complete tasks, and what may be possible if parties work collaboratively in their approach. These maps can also highlight where particular actors may be spoilers because of dependencies and help an organization come up with contingency plans to continue the work with other partners. 

Stakeholder Management Systems track the quality of client interactions and improve relationships over time, documenting what works, what doesn’t, and possibilities for collaboration. 

Causal loop modelling allows us to check if what clients think is happening (their understanding or perception of a process) against a logic chain or what’s actually happening to illuminate new discoveries and make changes. 

Scenario planning helps clients by creating hypothetical conditions to play out decision making ahead of actually needing to make those decisions. This can come in handy when thinking about and improving project handoff and exit strategies, crisis management, and resource allocations if something were to happen. 

Value chain analysis can help clients understand the full process of making and delivering a product or service by looking at each step from sourcing inputs, to labor and product development, to delivery and distribution to the end user. By examining the nuance of each part of the process, clients can understand what already works well and what might need to change.

Each of these separate tools can be mixed and matched depending on need to help clients understand the bigger picture. Headlight would love to support your systems thinking needs. We have the breadth and depth of expertise, experience, and toolbox to tailor-design a solution for you. For more information about our services please email Headlight Consulting Services, LLP is a certified women-owned small business and therefore eligible for sole source procurements. We can be found on the Dynamic Small Business Search or on via our name or DUNS number (081332548).