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Working Systems Language Guide

As hard as we tried not to, these guides do use some jargon – this guide deciphers that for you.


A System is a set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. 

Systems thinking is a habit of mind and set of tools for grappling with complex systems. It is understanding a system's connections and underlying patterns and dynamics in a way that uses that information to identify interventions and opportunities for change. 

Systems change is the practice of addressing systems in a way that is ongoing, emergent, adaptive and resilient – intervening in issues in the most strategic way possible to shift them toward equity and health.

Forces are individual elements with a system. They could be a pattern or trend, policy, attitude, power dynamic, or belief. 

Mental models are the individual and collective assumptions, beliefs, and world views that we individually and collectively hold about systems.

Leverage points are places within the system where a small action can have an outsized impact. It can be a particular force, connection, or pattern where stakeholders in the system can intervene to shift the system towards health and equity.

Feedback loops are the patterns that drive systems. Feedback loops are a series of forces that connect to one another in a cyclical way to form a loop. They dictate how a system functions.

Dominant narratives are the ways in which we articulate our mental models. They are the stories and accounts of how we think about particular issues.

Stakeholders are the key individuals and groups within any given system. They could be affected – directly or indirectly – by the system, have influence or power within the system, or be a changemaker in the system.

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