“Why are people unable to solve a chronic complex problem or achieve a meaningful goal—often despite their best efforts?” David Peter Stroh offers insight into this question in Systems Thinking for Social Change. The book is a good blend of theory and practice. In it Stroh draws a contrast between our conventional ways thinking, which seek to understand and change the world in terms of its parts, and thinking in terms of systems, which emphasizes understanding and changing the relationships between these parts.
He attempts to show the effects of these two ways of thinking with several examples pulled from current issues. Among them are homelessness, mass incarceration, and rural housing development. However, Stroh runs the risk of losing readers of a particular ideological bent when he let’s his views slip into his explanations of the examples. This even as he rightly states the requirement to engage diverse stakeholders in creating a rich understanding of a system. That would be unfortunate as Systems Thinking for Social Change has much to offer in helping people think differently so that we may come together to solve whatever problem we are confronting.
Stroh’s style is generally accessible, although it did test my focus in a couple of spots. He avoids jargon and keeps his language understandable. He methodically introduces the reader to thinking in terms of systems; on how to use this new skill to map systems and see himself and his world in a new way; on how to identify desirable and undesirable dynamics of a system, and on how to act in a way that brings about desired change. The chapters are short, made to feel even shorter with many subsections. In keeping with the systems approach of using graphics to tell stories, they contain lots of systems maps and graphs. I do wish the many maps showing causal links also included the direction of change with those links.
I think Systems Thinking for Social Change is a book you will return to repeatedly as you practice the tools it teaches. Having said that, neither Stroh nor this book will miraculously transform you into a systems thinker or reshape the way you view the world. That is something you will have to do on your own through practice. I used it to map a couple of systems at my place of work. These gave me insight into the dynamics at play. I have shown my maps to colleagues to their approval. If nothing else, we now share an awareness of what is going on. Change is not brought about through thought alone. While ideas serve to inspire, change comes about through action.