Improving the health of the Australian population through better nutrition is an important but complex and challenging goal, worthy of the Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank. Many disciplines and areas of specialised expertise are relevant and can contribute unique perspectives and ideas, but how are we to distil coherent and cost-effective strategy recommendations from such diversity? How are we to resolve opposing views and assess relative merits and feasibility of proposals?
This is where a systems approach is needed. Taking a systems view of a complex problem means working together to develop a conceptual map encompassing all the relevant perspectives, and exploring and understanding how they relate to each other. Where might the separately identified action proposals work in tandem and reinforce each other? What does it take to implement an innovative idea in a practical way? How might different groups of people react, and what consequences might follow? How can interest groups who might be disadvantaged by some proposals become part of the solution instead of identified as part of the problem?
Because there are so many different stakeholders and interests, and so many channels of communication and interaction, one cannot expect to predict all the answers, but having explored the possibilities means that more adaptive strategies can be developed, including feedbacks to enable learning as they are implemented.
The goal of the systems group will be to facilitate these conversations throughout the workshop, so that the recommendations that are developed are as robust, effective and practical as possible.
It’s very hard to draw a line around a problem area because there is such a dense network of interactions in the real world that there always remain important connections to factors beyond the current boundary. So when should one stop pulling the spaghetti and just cut it? A good litmus test is to include all the elements that have a strong impact on the outcomes that matter, since this is where one finds levers of influence as well as risks to be managed.
There are many books on systems thinking and systems approaches. Most of them are targeted at leadership and management of organisations or enterprises, or at systems engineering. Nevertheless, they can be useful. Some of the classics include:
If you don’t have time to read the whole books, there are good online summaries such as:
and this one summarises a systems approach to engineering—but much of it also relevant to designing strategies to deal with complex problems:
Effective strategies have to be cognisant of how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour, and of some cognitive traps that lead to poor decisions. Dörner’s little paperback is an easy to read classic, but full of rich insights as well as a good dose of humour. And Nobel-prizewinner Kahneman’s best-seller overview of his and Tversky’s lifetime career achievements in understanding bias and heuristics is also a great read.
Systems thinking is a practical approach to dealing with high levels of complexity—i.e. situations where there are many interactions between the elements—so there is also much of value in the complexity science literature. These are nice introductions:
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