Connecting the Dots

A Workshop on Systems Thinking for Community Problem Solving

Hand-drawn causality diagram with causes and effects connected to each other and to a central problem


As community members, the problems that we experience are complicated. Each of us may experience the symptoms of an issue in different ways. Looking at these different symptoms and their relationships to each other can help us understand the larger issue affecting our community and how to make changes that make all of our lives better.

Systems Thinking is a way of looking at a big problem from a broad perspective. We analyze the patterns and cycles that make up the system surrounding the problem that we want to solve. In other words, we look at the “Big Picture” instead of focusing on one specific symptom.

Just like the big problems we want to solve, the systems around them are complicated. Causality Maps are a useful Systems Thinking tool for identifying the causes and effects that make up a system, and it helps us visualize the relationships between different factors and symptoms. Using this tool, we might find that addressing a related factor is more effective than trying to solve the original symptom. 

For example, if we want to address the lack of mental health support in our community, we have to think about the system surrounding that problem — cultural stigmas, physical and financial barriers, consequences within the educational system, federal and municipal priorities, etc. — to find an effective solution. By mapping out all of the factors that influence our original problem, we can see new opportunities for making changes with the biggest impact. In this example, we might design a solution to address cultural stigmas against seeing a therapist, or we might find ways to provide free transportation to services. 

By mapping the causes and effects of a problem in our community, we can find more impactful and equitable solutions by:

  • Identifying how a problem affects different people in different ways
  • Identifying cyclical patterns as opportunities for intervention
  • Predicting the potential consequences of our actions

Think of the Connecting the Dots workshop as a structured conversation with your community.

About the workshop

The Connecting the Dots workshop involves three phases:

  1. Learn about Systems Thinking as a tool for community problem-solving
  2. Create a collaborative Causality Map together 
  3. Reflect on the map you’ve created, your different perspectives, and how you can best address a problem

The workshop is designed to be hosted virtually to make it easier for community members to join, participate, and learn together. The lecture and discussion portions of the workshop are hosted on Zoom, a video conference tool. The exercise portion of the workshop is hosted on Miro, an online whiteboard tool.

This toolkit outlines how to run this workshop and can be adapted to fit your community needs. It includes an overview of objectives (below), a detailed facilitation guide for preparing and running this workshop, and guidelines for hosting an accessible event.


The goal of this workshop is to give community members the tools to identify, visualize, analyze, and communicate:

  1. The different factors behind a problem
  2. How a problem affects different populations within a community
  3. Opportunities for intervention 

This workshop is designed to be inclusive of all community members, but this is an ongoing process. By creating a safe, accessible, and inclusive space that supports and centers the voices of marginalized populations, this workshop also aims to:

  1. Foster respect for human diversity 
  2. Encourage inclusion and leadership from marginalized populations
  3. Support community resilience
Learn about Systems Thinking as a tool for community problem-solving

Understand how Systems Thinking supports intersectional approaches to problem-solving

Understand how Systems Thinking supports the implementation of effective, inclusive, and sustainable solutions

Create a Causality Map together around a community problem

Create a shared understanding of a problem affecting the community

Create a useful visualization of the different factors surrounding a problem, which can be used for identifying, assessing, and communicating intervention opportunities

Reflect on the created map, the different perspectives that created it, and possible opportunities for intervention

Understand the importance of inclusive, multi-perspective approaches to problem-solving

Identify opportunities for intervention and next steps for community problem-solving

In addition, both the problem-exploration process and the causality map created during the workshop can be used to strengthen project proposals, funding requests, and grant applications. At the end of the workshop, you will have a greater understanding of the problem you are trying to communicate and address as well as a useful visualization to help support your argument

Note: It’s important to remember that we will never know everything about a problem. Even if we can’t know or solve everything, mapping the causes and effects that we do know can help us get closer to understanding a problem and finding useful solutions.  

Get started

Check out the Facilitation Guide for detailed information about preparing and running the Connecting the Dots workshop with your community.

More information

This toolkit is the result of an NYU Integrated Design and Media graduate thesis project. Learn more about this project

Creative Commons Attribution: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon this work non-commercially, as long as you credit us and license your new creations under the identical terms.