Recent updates: Wellbeing insights in Cleveland Lessons in centering community Viewpoint: Planning for wellbeing

When the system is rigged, the solution isn’t to create more programs for people harmed by the same unfair systems

Instead, the solution is to reimagine these systems to make our country fairer and more equitable for everyone — which means ensuring that the places where we work, live, play and pray tap into people’s universal drive for wellbeing, instead of undermining wellbeing for some and enabling it for others.

Doing this requires changing the structures that hold the problems in place. Our approach to fixing systems starts by identifying what those problems are, then using a wellbeing orientation to create durable transformation.

How to identify problems at a systems level

When we partner with a new community, we start by examining how people and structures are linked, function and influence one another. This means looking at the six components that make up a full system experience:


icon arrow

The what and how of individuals’ interactions one-on-one or in small groups. Practice is the application of an idea, the carrying out of a policy or structure in ways that reflect culture and the beliefs and values of the individual applying the practice.

Many change efforts assume that people don’t know how to do things differently – so if we can train them on a new practice, the change will succeed. In reality, this is often an incorrect assumption that yields little durable change or transformation.

Policy & Structures

icon arrow

The explicit norms and expectations like rules, operating procedures and personnel policies – as well as required tools and processes – that define and guide interactions.

Policies and structures signal what is expected, although they do not always translate into actions. Culture and practice can undermine or shift how policies and structures are implemented.


icon arrow

The under-the-surface set of beliefs, feelings, attitudes and patterns of assumptions that show up in “how we do things around here”.

Culture includes relationships, how power shows up, habits, institutional reactions to context and events, history, narratives, and norms that signal belonging, in-groups and out-groups.

Context & history

icon arrow

We cannot begin to shift culture or systems if we don’t understand the history. So often we go in assuming that just because people want change, they’re going to jump on a bandwagon – but if a community has seen reforms or change efforts every couple of years with no real change, they will wait and see what’s possible before jumping in. That’s natural and that’s history.

Context is also important.  What’s happening in the world around us? That changes how people see or understand current events and impacts their tolerance for change. What’s possible? What’s preferable? What feels urgent? Where are the moments of opportunity? That’s all about the context.

Mental models

icon arrow

Mental models help people make sense of the world. We use them every day to interpret our environments and understand the world around us.

These shortcuts shape how people and systems operate every day, and that makes them both essential and dangerous. Mental models are mirrored in practice, policy and structure. If we don’t confront the mental models that are baked into our systems, they become underlying structures and cultures that can make it harder to make change stick.

Relationships & power

icon arrow

All these pieces are infused with relationships and power. Power has to do with whose voice matters – as well as who gets to influence whom and how.

Determining where to start

We can start with policy, start with practice, start with culture — as long as we’re also paying attention to the pieces in the outer ring.

And we can’t do any of this unless we take on and wrestle with how we as a country, community, individuals have been guided, trained, incentivized to see each other as more different than we actually are and how we have erected policies and practice and driven cultures that hold inequities and deep harms in place.

Learn more in this video:

Curious to learn more about how to take a systems-focused approach and make change in your community?

Connect with us

Girl letting go of a balloon

How you can drive system transformation

Systemic transformation requires changing practice, structures and culture in ways that will last. The work takes a long-term commitment and a fundamentally different approach. When seeking to change a system, we use five key levers to begin transformation: