From service design to systems change

Adam Groves
6 min readMar 19, 2018


Reshaping what’s desirable, feasible and viable using ‘Systems Leverage Maps’.

“The end goal of a design thinking work process is to create a solution that is desirable, feasible and viable.” A quick reminder of what that means in practice:

Desirable — your service satisfies the people using it

Feasible — it’s technically possible to implement

Viable — it’s got a sustainable business model

There’s not much to disagree with there. Every service should aim for these characteristics, and a successful design process should achieve them.

So where’s the problem?

It’s arguably becoming harder and harder to fulfill these requirements meaningfully — especially for non-profits and the public sector, which are attempting to support vulnerable populations in a context of austerity. The needs of people accessing key services are growing, to a point where it is often not possible to adequately meet them. Simultaneously, the resource to develop and maintain services is under pressure.

Of course desirable, feasible and viable services can still be created — tight constraints can be the prompt for ingenious solutions. Nonetheless, the terrain for service design is more challenging.

There has been a lot of talk recently about how ‘systems thinking’ approaches can help us navigate this new, more challenging terrain. A recent RSA report shows how systems thinking and design thinking can be integrated. Systems analysis at the ‘front end’ of service design can help us to better understand complex social problems and identify opportunities to respond more effectively and profoundly. Equally, systems thinking provides tools and mindsets to understand the power structures and ‘system immune responses’ which so often kill new solutions before they get off the ground.

Image from RSA report ‘From Design Thinking to Systems Change

I’ve found this model helpful, together with guidance produced by Lankelly Chase and NPC which aims to nudge traditional design practice towards systemic change.

But in building the case for this way of working, I’ve sometimes struggled to articulate how we might expect the ‘result’ to look different in practice when compared to what exists already.¹ As a consequence, I worry sometimes that there’s a danger of embracing the theatre of systems thinking — using it to position services and to navigate what’s desirable, feasible and viable within the existing system — without actually reshaping the system itself.

This matters because services designed and optimised for the current system can have the effect of further entrenching it — by introducing additional forces and interests to ‘keep things the way that they are’. This isn’t to dismiss their value — systems change is slow and uncertain, and in the meantime it’s essential we deliver the most effective services possible within the current regime. But at the very least, there is good reason to understand the extent to which our services are reinforcing or challenging the status quo. Within organisations and across sectors, are we striking the right balance?

Drawing on the work of Donella Meadows, I’ve been experimenting with trying to map how services — and portfolios of services — are positioned in relation to generic systems change levers. Meadows identified 12 places to intervene in a system, and ranked the different levers in order of effectiveness.

Donella Meadows’ 12 leverage points for a system

Least effective are ‘constants, parameters and numbers’ — for example making spending or staff changes. She equates this to “diddling with the dials, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. At the other end of the spectrum, the most effective lever on the system is the power to transcend paradigms, followed by the ability to change paradigms, and the power to shape the goals of the system. Meadows’ 12 leverage points provide an axis of ambition in regard to systems change, which we can use to review service designs and activities.

A second variable is how a service relates to the chronology of their users’ experience. The vast majority of services designed for vulnerable people kick in at the point of crisis, or after. In a context of limited resources, thresholds and criteria are used to prevent people from accessing support until their situation is absolutely critical. As a result, we often deal with symptoms rather than causes. It’s an ‘inconvenient truth’ that it’s more difficult — sometimes impossible — and hugely more expensive to help people at this stage. This chronology provides a second axis against which to understand how our services relate to the current system. Are we shaping people’s opportunities and environment, or are we responding to what’s happened after the fact?

By mapping the components of individual services (or portfolios of services) against these two axes, perhaps we can explore their relationship to systems change. To what extent are we tweaking around the edges of the existing system, versus changing the behaviour of the system itself — and how ambitious is the effort?

Systems Leverage Map (see/download a larger version here)

To give a worked example, the Systems Leverage Maps below compare two hypothetical services, aimed at supporting young people who are at risk of criminal exploitation. At a glance, it should be evident which of the two services has systems change ambitions, the leverage points being used to realise them, and their relationship to the chronology of the service users’ experience.²

Systems Leverage Map: Hypothetical Service 1 (see/download a larger version here)
Systems Leverage Map: Hypothetical Service 2 (see/download a larger version here)

My thinking on this is very nascent (I may be way off course, in which case please don’t hesitate to let me know), but I wonder if Systems Leverage Maps could be useful to:

  • Explore if and how individual services are challenging existing systems;
  • Collectively explore which leverage points are being targeted, and by whom, and which ones are being neglected;
  • Help understand the likely stability of a system, by mapping portfolios of services;
  • Explore the overall ambition of systems change efforts.

What do you think? What are the flaws or risks of this approach? Is it worth building on and improving? You can get in touch with me on Twitter via @adgro.

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Responding to this post, Katie Boswell observed that one of the disadvantages of Meadows’ 12 leverage points is that they can be quite overwhelming. This challenge had also dawned on me whilst preparing to use a Systems Leverage Map in a design workshop. To facilitate an inclusive conversation, the ‘leverage points’ axis would need to be much more accessible.

Below is a second iteration, which focuses on four ‘types’ of system leverage (adapted from a 2016 paper led by Dave Abson). I hope it comes closer to being a practical tool to facilitate conversations. It still represents early thinking— suggestions for improvements are very welcome, or you can download and modify it using the link below.

Workshop Systems Leverage Map (see/download a larger version here)

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¹ This might just be my personal deficiency…

² I recognise the same information is contained in a good Theory of Change — and with more nuance and context. The advantage of a Systems Leverage Map, I think, might be that it enables more immediate communication of the systems change work (or lack of it), as well as clearer comparison of tactics and levels of ambition. I would envisage a Systems Leverage Map might be used alongside a systems-informed Theory of Change (see Chris Alford’s piece on the subject) — each would inform the other.



Adam Groves

Social Impact at Nominet. Previously The Children’s Society (but on Medium, I’m just me — views my own). Twitter @adgro