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How Trepwise Approaches Systems Change

At Trepwise, we have led hundreds of research, problem-definition, and planning efforts across New Orleans and Louisiana that are grounded in community and organizational insights. We help the entities we work with drive better outcomes for their constituents by operating within the bounds of their organizational capacities. However, time and again, we’ve seen the effectiveness of these organizations held back by legal, political and bureaucratic structures that stand in the way of transformative outcomes. Increasingly, our clients have been seeking answers around how to address these barriers by pursuing systems change, defined by FSG as “advancing equity by shifting the conditions that hold [problems] in place.” 

Sometimes shifting those conditions can happen through a single organization engaging in advocacy or effective storytelling and outreach – the work to change “hearts and minds.” Other times, it requires multiple organizations working in coalition together in order to identify gaps in service delivery, improve information flow between key actors within a system, and tackle common barriers in a coordinated approach. Whether you are a single organization or a collective, a desire to change a system is just the beginning. Translating that desire into action is where using some common frameworks for visualizing system dynamics can be essential planning tools.

How We Do It

The methods that undergird the “Trepwise Way” are relevant when working both at the organizational level and at the systems level. However, we’ve found it is also important to incorporate frameworks that have been specially developed for tackling system-wide challenges. At Trepwise, we leverage a variety of frameworks. In this post, we are going to introduce you to two of our favorites: the Iceberg Model and FSG’s Water of Systems Change. Each plays a crucial role in our strategic approach to drive transformative and holistic change.

1. The Iceberg Model

We often use the iceberg model when first introducing the concept of systems change to our clients and their partners. It provides a simple metaphor for beginning to understand the complex layers that need to be examined to understand how to shift systems conditions. The image of an iceberg is used to visualize the ways in which many conditions can be invisible from the surface, but are integral in shaping outcomes and experiences. (i.e. the part of the iceberg we see above the water).

2. FSG’s Water of Systems Change

FSG’s Water of Systems Change model focuses on looking at six conditions across three levels that typically play significant roles in holding a social or environmental problem in place. You can think of each of these three conditions as some of the “underlying structures” below the surface in the iceberg model. 

This model emphasizes the importance of not just working at the structural level, where social sector actors have long worked (e.g. informing policy, promoting more effective practices). Rather, it is critically important to combine structural strategies with work at the other two levels to sustain shifts in system conditions.

Applying These Frameworks

We are mapping these systems to understand leverage points. According to Donella Meadows, who wrote the primer on systems thinking, leverage points are those at which a “small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” When working with clients and their partners, we help them identify structural, relational, and transformative barriers that are holding critical challenges in place, and then we help them design solutions across each level in order to overcome those barriers and reconfigure the system. Look out for an upcoming blog post where we’ll dive further into identifying and testing leverage points.

For our more complex projects, we combine the two frameworks to create a powerful metaphor and change process, an approach that originated when partnering with the Children and Youth Planning Board as part of New Orleans’s 10 Year Youth Master Plan.

Bringing These Frameworks to Life

Our commitment to systems change is not theoretical; it’s practical. In addition to the Youth Master Plan, we’ve implemented the Iceberg Model for MCCNO’s culture plan, integrated it with Collective Impact for the Tulane Wave of Support pilot, and employed the Water of Systems Change in designing the recommendations for the Whole Health Louisiana State Plan for preventing and addressing childhood adversity.

At Trepwise, we are constantly evolving our approach to better advance our vision: thriving and equitable communities nourished by good ideas. Whether this is one organization at a time, or through multi-organizational, multi-sector efforts, we are dedicated to helping each of our clients create these outcomes in their communities. Connect with us here to learn how we can work together to bring about transformative and holistic change.