Participatory Systems Analysis: Method in a Nutshell


There are different variations of participatory systems analysis, but they are all deeply shaped by three features that emerge as common threads to all methods and approaches[1]:

  • An understanding of interrelationships
  • A commitment to multiple perspectives
  • An awareness of boundaries

In order to achieve this, the following steps are recommended:

  1. Get to know your team members
  2. Understand the system
  3. Identify and engage the collaborators
  4. Get the actors to engage in a process of dialogue to understand and transform their own system
  5. Conduct the analysis together and iterate

[1] Inspired by Williams, B. and R. Hummelbrunner (2010) Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner's Toolkit, Stanford University Press, page 3.


Note: This step assumes you are already part of a project team.

It is very important to blend the different experiences and perspectives of the members to produce a team that can: (i) mobilise itself and adapt quickly to unexpected challenges and opportunities; (ii) mobilise the resources of its own organisation and local partners; (iii) engage coherently with system actors. These are some ways of doing it (not necessarily in this order):

    • Talk about your life stories; the principles and assumptions that have led you to where you are now.
    • Share how you see your work and the project you are part of. How is the organisation and the project aligned with your personal mission?
    • Share your understanding of basic concepts like “system”, “local”, “community”, “facilitation”, etc.


Some of the following steps inform and influence each other; do not follow them in a linear sequence.

    • The team members share what they know about the system (from studies, reports, newspaper articles, verifiable facts, anecdotes, beliefs, rumours, etc.). Take note of what is shared and draw one or more maps of actors, relationships and forces and/or feedback loops maps.
    • The team members discuss their visions of an improved system. What do they want to see after the interventions in the long- and mid-term (3-5 years)?
    • The team members reflect about “Who Does, Who Invests, Who Benefits”[1]. When thinking about who benefits, think also about who lose out. Those who benefit will enable and even drive the process; those who lose out may hamper and even attack the process and the people involved.
    • Think about the entry points. Entry points are those parts or issues of the system that represent an opportunity for the team to engage, build trust and start “unlocking” the system. For example, you convince a well-connected agricultural distribution company to pilot an improved-seeds distribution model targeting marginalized farmers. With evidence of success, you organize a business meeting with competitors to show them what the company achieved.
    • Think about the no-go zones. No-go zones are parts or issues in the system that you know will be very difficult to change with the available resources. For example, you discovered that improving a road would allow farmers to sell their produce 40% cheaper in the local market but the government has confirmed that resources for this will not be allocated during the current budget period. Can the products reach the market by boat? Is the value of the product so high that buyers will take higher risks and costs to pick it up at the farm gate? If so, why is this not happening already?
    • Think about the ethical implications of the participatory analysis (and subsequent activities). How will the drivers of change be affected by those in power? Will their assets, jobs, reputation and even lives be at risk? How do we justify such risk? In this case, it is very important that the actors are well informed about the implications of participating in the process and they are the ones deciding that they want to do it; not simply because we are asking them to do it.

[1] Adapted from the slogan “Who Does, Who Pays” proposed by the M4P Approach. See “The Operational Guide For The Making Markets Work For The Poor (M4P) Approach, page 21


These are the actors that will work with you to try out new ways of doing things and drive change from within the system.

    • The mapping process should have allowed you to identify some of these actors. In cases where the actors belong to a very large group (e.g. slum dwellers), engage influential representatives.
    • Invite the collaborators to participate in the analysis of the system. Engage with them using a language they understand and show them clearly the possible benefits of participating. The more marginalized or vulnerable the collaborators are, the more you will have to help them building basic networking, analysis and negotiation skills.
    • Get to know the collaborators well and build trust with them. Understand their current situation (needs, potential, fears, expectations, etc.), history (how and why they got to where they are) and visions of the future (what is likely to happen without the project and thanks to it?)

Tips to identify the right actors:

  • People who can contribute to the discussion, identify barriers and commit themselves to implement solutions.
  • People searching for opportunities, and/or those who have been trying hard to transform the system.
  • High-level officials and other actors with power to transform the system but also people who can reach those with the will to change and creativity.
  • In politically sensitive environments, those least interested in hijacking the meetings and those who can verify that the meetings are not a threat to incumbent, powerful actors.


This is the heart of the participatory analysis process. This is where co-creation starts. Co-creation is the process of creating together new visions of future possibilities, and strategies and initiatives to move towards that future.

    • The co-creation of a future that engages most actors is based upon a good collective understanding of the history of the system (Why are we here? What have we done that contributes to where we are now?), its current state (What are the challenges and possibilities of our system?), what it could become in the long term and what we can do together now that will move us closer to that vision.
    • This participatory process of analysis is very similar to steps 1 and 2 but it is done with the collaborators. Therefore, the team must have the skills to get the collaborators to show up and stay engaged (creating the spaces where they feel comfortable analysing their system) and support them to drive their own initiatives.
    • Getting the actors to show up: this is a tricky process because actors may feel threatened or uncomfortable about the idea of working with others; they could also be very busy or feel that this is not a priority for them. In all cases, you should work to understand their interests and motivations (see step 3 above).
    • Creating a safe space for productive dialogue: this is about creating the right conditions, such as physical space, mood and dynamics that will help the participants relax, open up and work with others to gain a deeper and better understanding of their own system.
    • As facilitators, we must develop skills and sensitivity to transform negative feelings (e.g. fear, mistrust and resentment) into springboards towards higher levels of engagement, participation, openness and creativity.

Tips to create a safe space:

  • Encourage the participants to hear what others are saying. We must help the participants to become aware of when they are not listening properly and talking across each other. Often, as others talk we are preparing our “ammunition” to attack what the others are saying (or what we think are saying). We must help the participants to cultivate the discipline of suspension of judgement and preconceptions.
  • Help the participants be more aware of the assumptions they are making at every step and help them to share them with other actors. This may involve some respectful prodding and challenging of participants’ views.
  • Communicate clearly and demonstrate with actions that we are non-judgemental and neutral, in the sense that we are there to help them improve their own system; not to benefit a specific group or set of one individuals.
  • Pay attention to body language (including facial expressions) and “ways of saying things” (tone, volume, sarcasm, etc.).
  • Encourage participants to take responsibility, to shift at the appropriate moment from complaining to saying what they can do to be constructive but always within their possibilities and without pushing too much.
  • Help the participants to understand the history of their system, but also to let go of the past and focus on what is they can do now, together.
  • Encourage participants to let the others know what and why they value them. This can contribute to more openness and trust.


As the participants engage in a productive dialogue, we must document the process and help them synthesize their findings and insights, prioritize and sequence their initiatives and assess whether more rounds of participatory analysis are necessary.

    • Capturing: it is ideal to have one person observing and taking notes of what goes on during the analysis (i.e. “a fly on the wall”). This person will notice things that the facilitator can’t and during the breaks or at the end of the day, s/he shares with the facilitator her/his insights and take-aways. For example, one participant that has not spoken or that looks threatened by others, or a moment when the facilitator imposed his/her views on the participants.
    • Synthesizing: during and after the workshop, the facilitators help the participants cluster similar findings under categories and highlight connections between clusters.
    • Prioritizing and sequencing: as the participatory analysis moves forward, the participants will propose strategies and activities to address blockages or exploit opportunities. The facilitators must help the participants agree on what can be done in the short- and mid-term. The participants must understand the teams’ possibilities to support their initiatives: Will you behave as a facilitator during the implementation phase? Will you be able to subsidize some initiatives? If so, how and when will you be able to do that? How will you phase out your support?
    • Iterating: During the first round of participatory analysis, you will realise that you missed something. It could be an important actor that was invisible during the analysis you did within your team or an issue that requires more research or the participation of experts. Be prepared for more than one session; hopefully not more than two.
    • PS: Remember to Exit Before You Enter. From the moment the team gets together to imagine the project and as you help the participants analyse their system and agree on strategies and activities, you must keep in mind your exit strategy and avoid becoming trapped in a vicious circle of dependency.