Framing the system

IMG 0065
Time 2-3 hours
Difficulty Hard
Comfort zone Hard
Participants Team
Group size 2-12

This is an exercise that helps you to look at the boundaries of the system in which you operate. It considers:

  • the long term trends that continue to shape the system
  • the nature of the current way in which the system operates
  • the emerging and niche, innovative initiatives

Seeing these all together enables you to see how they interact and influence each other. You can identify hypothetical patterns and relationships between them, and build a shared understanding of how you fit into the landscape, and the most promising areas for intervention.

It is important to see how you relate to different levels of the system in which you, and your organisations, or chosen issue, operate. Where your biggest influences are coming from, and give sight about what influences you might be less aware of, or what might be emerging that you can learn from and even stay ahead of.

You will need a large printout or drawing of this worksheet: Systemic Design Toolkit framing the system



If you’d like to, watch this 10 minutes introduction video to Systems Thinking:


Gather your team and materials in a space where you have enough room to stand around the context framing canvas, either on a wall or table.


First, ensure that everyone is clear about what the issue is you are analysing. This could be a sector, a particular initiative, an organisation etc. Try to write this down as a simple sentence.


If you have more than 4 people you might want to do the activity in smaller groups (3-4 works well and it can be useful to make the groups as diverse as possible) and come together to compare and discuss similarities and differences afterwards.

Each section can take about 10-15 minutes to fill in.


First think about the long-term trends. This is the circle in the centre of the canvas. Write down macro trends affecting the sector and system on post it notes (one idea per post it) and add them to the canvas, and make notes on how they are making an impact. Long term trends might include things such as climate change, population growth, ageing, political unrest...


Next, zoom out one level to think about the Current system, capturing the established ways of doing things. This is looking at how society is behaving in the system, and dealing with the current issues. Take about 10 minutes per section:

  • Institutional structures - what are the rules, regulations and power structures? What are the positive and negative effects they are having and why?
  • Economic structures - what are the patterns and trends happening in grant-giving and philanthropy, market, production, financial structures, distribution etc.
  • Culture - what values exist across society, how can you describe what the norms are?
  • Practices - what are the behaviours and routines that happen - both in people’s lives and in organisations?

Lastly, look at the outside of the canvas to think about the emerging niche initiatives. You could consider bringing in some different stimuli to prompt and broaden your thinking – e.g. relevant publications or blogs. These are the alternative ways of doing - the new, innovative ways of dealing with the issue? These might be emerging behaviours, anomalies which point to a different mindset, innovative and unique business ideas and initiatives you’ve, creative projects you’ve heard about. What makes them unique? What do we learn from them?


Once you’re happy you’ve completed your canvas, spend half an hour reflecting on the exercise as a team. Ask the team to discuss in pairs first and then bring it back to the whole group.

  • What does this exercise tell you about what is going really well? What are the successes and things to ensure continue to happen effectively?
  • What insights did this mapping exercise bring up about the landscape in which you operate?
    What surprised me/us?
  • How would you describe the relationship your organisation has to the factors and forces at all levels of this canvas?
  • How has this exercise made you think about your organisation and the role it plays in the system / challenge that it is tackling?
  • What factors might you need to consider more or less as you move forward?
  • What areas or examples could you learn from?
Facilitator notes

Systems can be defined in lots of different ways. Donella Meadows describes a system as ‘a set of things — people, cells, molecules or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time’

A system can be an ecosystem such as the rainforest, a social system such as the food or fashion systems, a socially created system such as education. They can be small, such as ourselves or large — like the whole economy.

In a system, boundaries can be placed at lots of different levels. Before you start, think about what your ‘system’ might encompass. Don’t worry if that isn’t clear - this exercise will also help you to define the boundaries of the system that your organisation works in as you look and the wider landscape as well as the smaller emerging bright spots and changes that are starting to show up.


This exercise comes directly from the The Systemic Design Toolkit, created by design consultancy, Namahn, and systems thinking consultancy, shiftN . The Systemic Design Toolkit aims to help you co-create interventions to tackle organisational and societal complexity.

For further reading:

Our approach to: Systems-psychodynamic thinking by Tavistock Consulting

What Is Systems Thinking? – Peter Senge Explains Systems Thinking Approach And Principles


Find your why
IMG 0062

Find your why

Understanding our personal ‘why’ creates clarity around the impact we seek.

Finding your why by Matthieu
Case Study

Finding your why by Matthieu

  • Context
Fill 1svg-arrow-downFill 1Learn Do Reflect ShareFacebookui-chevron-nextui-chevron-prevTwitter