Advancing systems thinking and practice

Participants at the workshop

4 April 20017: The Prevention Centre has brought together nearly 100 systems researchers, policy makers and practitioners from across Australia and New Zealand to discuss challenges and learnings from applying systems approaches in their work.

The systems practitioners convened in Melbourne for a series of three advanced systems workshops led by the Prevention Centre’s Manager of Systems Thinking, Dr Seanna Davidson.

Although systems thinking approaches to prevention are becoming more popular, there is still a relatively small number of individuals who are working in this space who have experiences to share in how to do systems work. The workshops provided an opportunity for those working in systems to consider new approaches and challenge their thinking, with the aim to progress the field.

Participants discussed issues related to systems research methodologies, heard case studies of systems applications in health, and began to explore how to measure impact from systems efforts.

Each workshop included opportunities for participants to share learnings, challenge each other to think more deeply, and consider new ways to apply systems principles.

Dr Davidson said the growing interest in systems approaches to prevention was exciting.

“As more organisations and governments become interested, we are seeing increased need and opportunity to build capacity around systems work, and to advance our own understanding and methods for best-practice,” she said.

A space to unpack systems and research

The workshop series was borne out of an increasing call from systems practitioners for more opportunities to meet and learn from others currently involved in systems thinking. They wanted to be challenged to move beyond entry level systems concepts, to more deeply advance their work.

In the first workshop, researchers convened to discuss issues such as what contexts are conducive to systems research, methodological challenges of researching systems, new and arising ethical issues, and to unpack what and how should be communicated when conducting research in systems.

Learning from what others are trying

The second workshop was aimed at practitioners from local and state governments, health systems, non-government organisations and academics. They had an opportunity to hear case studies of how systems are being used in day-to-day practice.

Presentations were given by Monash Health, the ‘Enhancing food security for Maori, Pacific and low-income households’ project at Massey University, New Zealand, the Prevention Centre’s Prevention Tracker Project, and Southern Grampians Glenelg Primary Care Partnership GenR8 Change project. Each provided examples of how practitioners grapple with the challenge of working with a system that is always changing, and how they apply systems thinking in the real world.

Similar issues emerged across cases, such as the challenges of trying to marry the work of systems change – which takes time and the end result may be unknown – with the short-term demands and expectations of funders and volatile political environments. Participants drew insights from one another, shared successes, and importantly, stories of things that have not worked.

Rowena Rittinger from Barwon Health said it was useful to hear others’ experiences of starting out in this approach.

“I really liked the suggestion around creating opportunities for people to be openly reflective about their work as an agenda item during staff meetings. Quite often we launch into the business at hand and don’t really stop and do that. So that was really practical, and I’ll take that back to my team,” she said.

Veteran systems practitioners were also challenged to think creatively. Julia Bilton and Alyce Cuman from Monash Health said the workshops were an opportunity to meet “critical friends” –  people who are like-minded, but can help practitioners to be challenged and to be pushed forward.

Capturing impact

During the third workshop, practitioners and researchers came together to begin a new piece of work: exploring how to capture the impact of systems approaches. Each participant developed a tailored plan and the group will meet again to report on their methods and progress.

Efforts from this final workshop will continue to develop over the next several months, as participants prototype their measures and report on learnings. They are being invited to continue to collaborate after the workshop, to develop communications that capture the experiences and insights and to share more broadly.

Join our learning community

If you would like to build your systems capacity:

Dr Katie Conte, Research Fellow, the Prevention Centre