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.

Detroit skyline

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.


This is an excerpt of my article  for DBusiness Magazine – Detroit’s Premier Business Magazine.   Link to the entire article here




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s