Centre for System Design
Te Whaitua Whakāhua Pūnaha

What Does it Mean to Think Systemically

Reading this I’m going to assume that you’re sitting down, and what you’re sitting on is a chair. Maybe you are sitting on one of those large chairs that more than one person can sit on, the ones we call sofas. Or maybe you’re on one of those chairs that tend to be in public places, the ones we call seats. Whichever version you are on it will have some distinguishing characteristics that define it as a chair. It will have a relatively flat surface that is about 45 to 50 centimetres off the ground. It will also have a mechanism to keep the surface at that level. That mechanism maybe fixed or it may enable you to adjust the height. It will also have another surface behind you, near vertical, that supports your back. The angle of that may also be adjustable. I have no idea what material it is made of, but I do know it will have those features. That is because when components are joined together in that particular way, a flat surface held off the ground at a height of around 45 to 50 centimetres with a vertical surface attached at the back, we recognise that structure as a chair. The elements of a chair, regardless of the materials used, are always organised in a specific way. It is a pattern of organisation we recognise as a chair. Take the back away and you have a stool. Raise the height to around 70 to 74 centimetres, make the flat surface a bit bigger and you have a table. In systems terminology we refer to that patten of organisation as structure. This is not to be confused with organisation structure that describes the reporting lines in an organisation, but the structure that connects key elements in a system together that enables the system to fulfil its purpose. The structure of a chair, the way its components are organised, allows it to fulfil its purpose of allowing people to sit supported.

Every system has a structure, a pattern of organisation, and this structure is central to how that system performs. In the complex health, education and social service systems we are concerned with, that structure has been designed, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes evolving in an almost ad hoc manner over the years, sometimes very deliberately designed as part of an organisational or system-wide strategy. Regardless of how the structure was designed, it will be a major determinant of how it operates. To take a systems approach, is to make an effort to understand that structure.

But health and social services systems are not chairs. Their components are not so simply defined and they are not static; they change and evolve over time. Complex systems such as health education and social services have features that make understanding their structure far more complex than understanding the structure of a chair. But, if you want to understand why a system performs the way it does, especially if you want to build on that understanding to improve it, you need to understand that structure. Systems Thinking provides a powerful set of concepts, methods and tools that help you to understand the structure of complex systems such as health and social services, systems that involve a magical interplay between people, ideas, and the environment within which they operate.

The Centre for Systems Design is committed to providing you with the knowledge and tools to do that, and we intend that this website will, over time, become a repository of ideas, tools and case stories to help you apply Systems Thinking to the challenges and opportunities you are faced with.