Putting Systems Thinking into Practice Toolkit
Welcome to the Toolkit
This toolkit is designed to support Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) grantees in meeting the Office of Population Affairs (OPA) expectation that their programs be grounded in a systems thinking approach. The toolkit is a foundational resource intended to help grantees understand what systems thinking is and why it should guide implementation and evaluation of every TPP program.
OPA has already provided its TPP grantees with a systems thinking foundation, which this toolkit builds upon.
Systems thinking offers organizations a way to approach complex and persistent problems more effectively. Each section of this toolkit contains action steps and supportive resources to help TPP program leaders (including project directors and program managers) adopt a systems thinking approach and support their staff in incorporating systems thinking into their daily work.
This toolkit will enable you to:
- Comprehend systems and systems thinking
- Identify opportunities to strengthen your program’s role in the system of care
- Establish community partnerships that strengthen the system of care and lead to systems change
- Incorporate systems change evaluation principles into your program’s evaluation efforts
To learn more about how to use this toolkit, see the Putting Systems Thinking Into Practice for TPP Programs Webinar.
Most people tend to think linearly—X cause leads to Y effect. In contrast, systems thinking is a way to view systems—networks made up of diverse components that aim to work together—from a broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns, and cycles in the system, rather than only specific events.1 Systems thinking is most effective when there is a strong commitment to learning; a willingness to be open to seeing, doing, and thinking differently; and an openness to multiple perspectives, including those of TPP program participants, staff, partners, and other stakeholders.2
When implementing systems thinking, it’s important to:
- Work with others—build movements or networks to amplify your efforts
- Act on leverage points where there is a realistic prospect of changing the system
- Learn—and use that learning to adapt what you do3
This section of the toolkit aims to help you become familiar with and assess your staff’s familiarity with systems thinking. It also offers strategies and resources to support your entire team in applying a systems thinking approach to TPP work.
Comprehend systems thinking and how this approach can strengthen your TPP program.
Use systems thinking strategies in your TPP program work.
Assess the extent to which your TPP program staff applies a systems thinking approach, review results, and lead staff in related professional development activities.
Continue learning about systems thinking.
All TPP programs—regardless of their tier or focus—support the health and well-being of adolescents. Given the impact that this work has on both individual youth and the community as a whole, your program plays an integral role in the system of care. A system of care is a coordinated network of clinical and community-based services and supports designed to help adolescents make healthy decisions.
But even the most successful organizations have space to iterate and improve. By taking stock of your program’s strengths and barriers, you can get confirmation about what you’re doing well and identify both your gaps and opportunities to address them. As part of this assessment, it’s important to determine which current partnerships are serving your program’s needs and which potential partnerships could strengthen your program. Developing and sustaining the right partnerships will not only enhance your TPP program, but will also make the entire system of care more robust.
This section of the toolkit aims to help you assess your program’s strengths and barriers and create a partnership strategy. Using a partnership strategy, you can address fragmentation within the system of care and actually strengthen the system of care to better serve youth in the community.
Partners form the backbone of a strong community network. Your program can benefit from both referral partnerships as well as other types of partners, such as schools that recruit participants on your behalf or foundations that provide funding.
When your TPP program builds and sustains relationships with compatible partners that share your goals, compensate for your barriers, and complement your strengths, you will support components of the system of care that work and repair those that don’t. Ultimately, your partnerships can fundamentally change the system of care, so that it can have a more meaningful impact on adolescents and their families.4
This section of the toolkit aims to support you in attracting, establishing, and formalizing new partnerships that will strengthen the system of care and lead to systems change.
Develop strategic messaging to attract potential partners.
Plan and build a comprehensive referral system.
By enhancing your TPP program evaluation with systems change principles, you can capture complexity such as:
- Relationships, influence, context, and emerging patterns
- The extent to which your TPP program is furthering equity in your community
- The conditions of systems that hold problems in place5
This complexity can help track your TPP program’s progress and impact within a changing system. Systems change evaluation is different from evaluating program outcomes in that systems change often takes longer and outcomes are often non-linear and counterintuitive (the size of the outcome does not correlate with the size of the input)6. Systems thinking resources, such as your learning agenda, can inform your TPP program monitoring and evaluation plans through ongoing improvement and feedback.
This section of the toolkit aims to strengthen your ability to apply systems change evaluation approaches and principles to your work.
For a step-by-step guide on systems change evaluation, refer to the comprehensive A Practical Guide to Evaluating Systems Change in a Human Services Systems Context.
Develop a basic understanding of systems change evaluation and how it differs from program evaluation.
Review systems change evaluation principles, practices, and methods for application in your TPP program evaluation.
Reflect upon your learning agenda questions continually to inform your TPP program monitoring and evaluation plan.
Use this checklist to plan and implement systems change principles into your TPP program evaluation.
- Authenticity Consulting, LLC. (2006). Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development. https://www.authenticityconsulting.com/pubs/CN-gdes/CN-FP.htm
- Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Random House.
- Abercrombie, R., Harries, E., & Wharton, R. (2015). Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it. https://www.thinknpc.org/resource-hub/systems-change-a-guide-to-what-it-is-and-how-to-do-it/
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. (2012, March). Primary Care and Public Health: Exploring Integration to Improve Population Health. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13381/primary-care-and-public-health-exploring-integration-to-improve-population
- Cook, J. & Preskill, Hallie. How Do You Evaluate Systems Change? A Place to Start. FSG. https://www.fsg.org/blog/how-do-you-evaluate-systems-change-place-start
- Patton, M.Q. (2011). Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. The Guilford Press.