Group 5—Systems perspective: bringing it all together to identify solutions

Co-Chairs: Professor Anne-Marie Grisogono and Professor Stephen Simpson

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.

Questions to get you thinking


  1. In what dimensions should we consider overall goals? e.g. health outcomes, cost of health services, more general economic measures, export potential of innovations, sustainability and environmental impacts? Other?
  2. What are the measures of success and of failure in each goal dimension? And how do they interact? Goals in different dimensions are often conflicted. Which are the primary essential goals? Which are negotiable?
  3. What is the goal structure? i.e. what do you aim to achieve in order to achieve your primary goal? There may be several layers of decomposition of goals—this is one way of describing your strategy—we aim to achieve X, in order to cause Y, in order to enable Z, etc. The point of doing this is to know what assumptions the strategy rests on and to know what indicators to monitor, to learn whether it’s working as expected—or not (often the case!)

What’s in or out

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.

  1. What aspects of individual health and nutrition need to be included? And how do they relate?
  2. What aspects of the situation need to be included in the conceptual map and in the discussions? Food industry? Entertainment and media? Education (schools? adult? health professions?) Agriculture? Politics? etc


  1. Who are the players? What are their interests? How could they help or benefit? How could they impede or be disadvantaged?
  2. What are their sources of information? Who do they trust? How might they be influenced?

Levers of influence

  1. What are the options for action? What is the desired impact and what other impacts might also be produced? How can these be managed?
  2. How likely is the desired impact? What could it go wrong? How can the risk be managed?
  3. What other ways might the desired impact be produced? Are there better options?
  4. What are the possible interactions between the actions being considered? e.g. reinforcing, risk reducing, leveraging, or antagonistic?

Learning from others’ experience

  1. What has been tried elsewhere? What were the outcomes? Why did it work or not work? What lessons can be drawn for our goals?

Recommended reading

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.

  • Dörner, D., 1997, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, Perseus Books Group.
  • Kahneman, D. 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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:

  • Waldrop, M 1993, Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos, Simon & Schuster  
  • Mitchell, M 2011, Complexity: a Guided Tour, Oxford University Press
  • Meadows, DH and Wright, D 2008, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green.

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