Influencing mindsets and mental models requires identifying what current mental models need to be shifted, targeting priority stakeholders for change, and designing strategies that involve target groups. The most effective practitioners, before seeking to influence the thinking of others, first examine their own beliefs and attitudes and their role in shaping the system.

We recently had the privilege to facilitate learning exchanges among systems change practitioners on exploring the ‘why,’ ‘when,’ and ‘how’ of shifting mindsets as part of systems change, in partnership with Porticus. In this blog, we share insights from these exchanges alongside FSG’s experience in systems change to go a little deeper on the ‘mental models’ element of ‘The Water of Systems Change’ framework, exploring strategies and best practices from experienced systems-change agents.

system is a set of interconnected, interdependent, and interacting parts that form a complex, unified whole. Social Innovation Generation in Canada defines systems change as “Shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.” In our Water of Systems Change report, we lay out six conditions, from explicit funding flows to semi-implicit conditions—such as relationships—to implicit conditions, namely ‘mental models.’ So, what are mental models, and why are they important to be aware of when striving for systems change?

As defined in the report, mental models are “deeply held beliefs and assumptions and taken-for-granted ways of operating that influence how we think, what we do, and how we talk.” They relate to stereotypes that ultimately dictate one’s thoughts and actions. Shifting mental models is a prerequisite to achieve systems change and relates to power dynamics and broader social norms. As noted, “Most systems theorists agree that mental models are foundational drivers of activity in any system…Unless funders and grantee partners can learn to work at this level, changes in the semi-explicit and explicit levels will, at best, be temporary or incomplete.”

Focusing on mental models can be particularly relevant if practitioners or community members observe that progress is stalled by counter-productive assumptions held by key actors needed for change to be achieved.

Read the full article about systems change by Flynn Lebus and Julie Jeanneret at FSG.