Participatory Systems Analysis:

Ways to Use


Participatory systems analysis can be used to:

  • describe a system in its current state;
  • facilitate or advocate for its transformation;
  • learn about its evolution; and
  • learn about its most feasible pathways of transformation.

Participatory systems analysis can add value to a project because it reduces the risk of rejection by the system actors when it is implemented. The strategies and activities of a project that has been analysed and designed with the stakeholders are more likely to be appropriate for their needs and driven by themselves (rather than pushed out by the project). This, in turn, leverages the resources of the system actors and increases the commitment of their participation.

Participatory analysis with stakeholders helps us gain a better understanding of:

  • Actors
    • Who the system actors are and which actors we have been missing or ignoring.
    • The main forces and factors influencing the behavior of the actors.
    • Which actors are close to each other; who trusts who and where the grievances and tensions lie.
  • Enabling Factors
    • Enablers and disablers. What are the enabling and hampering forces or factors?
    • Forces or factors that are very difficult to move and how to navigate around them. Some seemingly unmovable forces/factors can be moved later after other parts of the system have changed.
  • Sequencing of Activities
    • Activities that are more likely to succeed than others.
    • Which activities should be implemented first?
    • Where are the “low-hanging fruits” or entry points that build momentum and engagement?
    • Which activities have more traction amongst the system actors and which are more likely to be rejected?


The following are examples of how participatory systems analysis can be used with different stakeholders:

  1. With the project team

Participatory analysis can be done by a project team internally. It can be done at any stage of the project cycle. For example, to select target populations, specific geographic areas within a larger region, an issue (children’s health) or subsector (coffee).

Participatory analysis within the team is useful to:

      • Build a baseline and monitor changes in the system
      • Clarify and challenge assumptions and theories of change.
      • Leverage all the different experiences and perspectives of the team.
      • Improve the design, implementation and adaptation of projects.

2. With local system stakeholders

After the team has acquired a reasonable understanding of the system they are trying to influence, they should engage strategic stakeholders to:

      • Contrast and adjust the team’s initial ideas.
      • Build trust and collaboration amongst stakeholders.
      • Help the stakeholders agree about challenges and opportunities within their system, come up with joint visions and joint strategies and action plans.
      • Help the stakeholders to form groups that commit to implementing activities agreed by the broader group of stakeholders. These groups can be made up of one or multiple types of stakeholders (see Method in a Nutshell).
      • Create communication and accountability processes to guarantee that the above mentioned groups inform the rest of the local system actors about what is going on and how they can contribute.

3. With donors and investors

Participatory system analysis makes the project more appropriate for the needs of local stakeholders and increases their ownership and long-term engagement. It can also reduce the risks of delays, extra-costs and harmful impacts on people and the environment. This can have positive effects on the donors’ overall assessment of the project and on their willingness to invest in it.

4. With policy-makers

Participatory system analysis convenes a broad range of stakeholders and constituencies to produce information and evidence that can influence the design and improvement of policies. From the perspective of policy-makers, strategies and initiatives for policy change that are the result of participatory systems analysis, are more legitimate and have more political appeal than those that come from a project team.


  • Collective understanding of the system.
  • Collective visioning and planning.
  • Trust building and communication between system actors (which enable smoother, more effective, more efficient implementation)
  • Takes time to engage and win trust of key system actors.
  • Results depends on actors’ availability and interest to participate.
  • Requires experienced facilitators.