A step-by-step guide to applying systems in everyday practice

A systems framework developed by policy partners in Tasmania with support from the Prevention Centre is helping public health practitioners to apply systems tools and methods in their everyday work.

Prevention Centre systems expert Dr Seanna Davidson said the framework was especially useful because it guided users through an entire inquiry process. Various systems strategies can be used at different stages of the framework, which can be made specific to the context and the problem being worked on.

The framework was presented to a group of public health researchers and practitioners at a pre-conference satellite event of the Prevention 2018 conference. Dr Davidson said it made systems more accessible, feasible and meaningful to those wanting to engage with complex public health problems.

“What sets this apart is that it goes into much more depth about how to actually implement systems in everyday practice,” she said.

“Many frameworks stop at the conceptual idea of what will happen. However, this approach allows us to take it to a level of implementation and practice; it’s very clear what we actually do in each stage of the framework. We have made it highly relevant to those working in public health looking for practical strategies.”

The framework was developed by the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the University of Tasmania, with input from the Prevention Centre, as part of a systems thinking core unit in the Master of Public Health at the University of Tasmania (UTAS).

It was designed for those working in public health who want to understand how to apply systems beyond using an individual tool. It demonstrates how the tools can be layered together into a more comprehensive inquiry process.

The framework helps users apply systems through a number of steps:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Gaining clarity about the system
  3. Finding points of leverage and opportunities for change
  4. Moving to act strategically

Practitioners are prompted to apply individual systems thinking skills of learning, adapting and refining as they move through the process of inquiry.

During the event, participants identified their own complex problem that was meaningful and relevant to them, then worked in small groups to apply tools from each stage of the inquiry process.

Michelle Morgan, Healthy Communities Officer at the DHHS and content lead of systems thinking unit at the University of Tasmania, said the event had enabled participants to make sense of where systems thinking tools could be applied in practice.

“Systems thinking is still little understood in public health. The session made it more applicable to people’s own work,” she said.

“Many of them had an ‘aha’ moment – working through the systematic inquiry process helped them make sense of where different systems practices and tools could be used.”

Dr Davidson said the event also helped Prevention Centre researchers to understand the practicalities of using systems in the real world. Importantly, the learning is a two-way exchange.

“I’m incredibly grateful to all the health practitioners and researchers who teach me every day about the realities of applying systems thinking in their everyday practice. Together we are learning so much more about the practice of systems,” she said.

Participants said the workshop increased their confidence to apply systems approaches in their work and that the strategies would help them to plan and anticipate issues. Some said that the next step would be for them to bring their colleagues on board, and one noted they will be starting their own systems community of practice in their workplace.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about the Framework or to join our Community of Practice, please contact Dr Seanna Davidson

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