Our NHS People

Defining a ‘system’

A system can be defined as a set of 2 or more parts working together as a single interconnecting whole.

Whether we realise it or not, the teams and areas which we work in within the NHS are all part of wider systems and linked to other systems.

We might consider that a good first step towards systems thinking would be to map the whole system that we work in so that we can understand it and grasp the whole of it. Perhaps even control it. But a system is not a single or simple entity – it is made up of separate but interconnected parts. 

The aim of systems thinking is not to fully understand the system but to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most complex and difficult, come about and to give us some perspective on those problems in order to give us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.

In order to illustrate this, the following video describes a ‘system’ in nature as an example:


Think about a tree growing in a wood, the soil in which its roots are secured is a system of worms, microbes, watercourses and subsoil. The wood, too, has a system with a mix of deciduous and evergreens, each supporting a different type of underground. Then we have the manmade physical environment in which the wood sits, the impact of people’s work and leisure activities. And finally, the global natural environment which surrounds the whole. They form concentric circles which ebb, flow and merge as the systems adjust to the changing seasons.

The examples in the video can be applied to organisations. The provision of health and social care, for example, is now an integrated complex system – its parts adjusting as it sits within the wider system of modern living. 

Understanding that system and its interconnectivity and assessing how an action in one area may affect another requires a collective intelligence and acknowledgement that no one person will have the answers. 

On occasion, even the entire team that you are working in may not have the correct answers to a problem or challenge that you are facing and a wider collective intelligence is required. In these instances, setting up a community of practice can be an effective way of applying systems thinking and leadership. We’ll explore this in the next section. 

Use your journal to make some notes about the following questions:

Q: How would you describe the system(s) in which you work?

Q: What other teams and areas (that you are aware of) are impacted by the work you do?

Q Have you ever noticed that the work that you / your team does impacts another area or team that wasn’t immediately obvious?

Q: How much of the system that you work in do you fully understand? 

Q: What areas of it are less clear?

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