Participatory Systems Analysis

“We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.” ― Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer


Participatory Systems Analysis (PSA) to enable strategic actors to come together to gain a better understanding of their own system, create joint visions of how it could improve and agree on practical ways to do it.

Participatory Systems Analysis puts the emphasis on the system actors and the processes that allow them to interact, learn from each other and find feasible areas for collaboration. PSA is not a tool that we can use to analyse the system; instead, it is an approach where multiples tools and techniques (including the ones in this guide) can be used to help the actors analyse the system they belong to. PSA must also promote a cyclical movement between analysis and synthesis (zooming in and zooming out).

Local systems are open and driven by human motivations and perceptions. On one hand, an open system is one where, no matter where we decide to put its boundaries, there will always be something external to it that affects it. The more open a system is, the more it interacts and depends on its surroundings. On the other hand, in a human-driven system the individuals (and the groups and institutions they belong to) are constantly learning, adapting, competing and collaborating according to the information they possess. Most of this information is limited and some is wrong.

These two prominent features of social systems (openness and human-driven) mean that it is impossible to change them from the outside in ways that are sustainable, scalable and predictable. In some cases, a project can change a system from the outside but changes do not last; in some others, changes last but they benefit just a lucky few; and in other cases, changes last and their effects are broadly felt but end up harming people and the environment.


Participatory systems analysis is particularly effective when we are trying to help the system actors deal with complicated and complex problems[1]. Complicated problems have many variables and can be interpreted in different ways by different actors (e.g. how to carry out a vaccination programme). Complex problems -on the other hand- are constantly shifting and changing depending on the decisions of different actors; they are also interpreted differently by different actors (e.g. how to improve the productivity and efficiency of the livestock market).

Complicated problems can be identified and understood by experts but if their implementation (including the prioritisation of activities) requires the agreement and engagement of a wide range of actors, then experts can’t solve them through a top-down, command-and-control approach. Complex problems are even more demanding because it is very difficult to identify them or define them and to unveil their root causes.

It is precisely the very nature of the mentioned types of problems and the fact that it is impossible to solve sustainably without the engagement and alignment of a wide range of system actors that make PSA a systems tool.

[1] These concepts are based on the Cynefin Framework. The framework is currently undergoing improvements but this article provides the basics:

For an effective analysis of complicated and complex problems in a social system the following principles must be considered:

  • Social systems are living organisms. They cannot be approached as a machine that must be fixed by outside experts. The system will likely pick up on any unfamiliar actors and resources (e.g. donor funding) and react to it. In some cases, it will reject them; in others, it will adapt to and exploit them, often to their own short time benefit without any real, lasting change.
  • Participatory analysis is an intervention in itself. Helping the system actors to look at themselves and the system they inhabit creates enabling conditions for change (even without any funding to intervene in the system).
  • Systemic analysis is a conscious and strategic exercise of zooming out to see the bigger picture and zooming in to focus our interventions on a few critical leverage points that will create good conditions for structural change.
  • Social systems are made up of several sub-systems. These subsystems are networks with different degrees of formalisation (from formal laws, government institutions and private corporations to informal networks).
  • People have different perspectives of the system they belong to. Each actor sees reality differently to others. The perceptions of actors are not to be judged but understood and leveraged to enable change. Sometimes, actors with negative perceptions about our interventions or who are “difficult to manage” can be those who care the most about the system and can drive the biggest changes if we understand how to channel their energy.
  • Participatory analysis must be driven by real possibilities of change. Analysis for the sake of it will not get people to show up and stay engaged. We must communicate clearly to each actor what they can realistically get out of their participation. The actors must understand that systemic change will depend mainly on themselves and that we are there to enable participation and facilitate convergence around a wide range of interests and challenges.


  • When the overall objectives are clear (e.g. making a market system more inclusive and productive) but the specific problems and their root causes are not clear.
  • When the implementation of solutions depends on the alignment of interests of several actors and their active engagement (e.g. collaboration, coordination and investment).
  • When the objectives and solutions are clear, but the strategies and implementation priorities (what should be done first) are not clear and must be agreed upon by several system actors.
  • When higher levels of trust and mutual awareness between actors are required to enable or unlock implementation (e.g. in highly volatile, conflict-ridden, hierarchical and traditional contexts).


  • It is a process. The final products, such as maps and workplans, are important to document the process but what is really important about PSA is the convergence, learning and trust-building that takes place as a result of the gathering and interactions between system actors.
  • It is highly political. Actors will always prioritize the defense of their own interests and try to protect the status-quo if it benefits them or if it feels safer than untested solutions.
  • It is highly influenced by cognitive biases and hampered by cognitive dissonance (the discomfort produced by new ideas that contradict existing ones).
  • It can get messy and tense. PSA generates high levels of emotion. In most cases, it manifests in motivation to do things collaboratively; but it can sometimes manifest in conflict or resentment (especially when participants cannot voice their ideas/interests).