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2.4 Systems thinking

‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’ is a good place to start thinking about systems. A car is more than its individual components. We can think of a football team as being more than a collection of individual players or a family being more than a group of people who share the same name.

Each of these examples – the car, the football team and the family – can be seen as systems. Individual parts of a system are connected together in some way for a purpose.

Examples of other systems include the local hospital, or the hospital catering system with the purpose of providing food for the patients and staff as part of the hospital system for helping the sick and injured. But the idea of systems goes beyond collections of tangible components such as people, equipment and buildings that form part of various systems. Systems also include intangible items such as ideas, values, beliefs and norms. These intangible things are factors in a system.

We can see that families have beliefs and behaviours that guide how they interact with each other and with those outside the family. Football teams and their football clubs have strong bonds of beliefs, loyalties and aspirations, and they show these in how they behave when they appear in their club colours. Their systems have tangible elements such as the playing field, the seating areas, the players, officials and supporters but also intangible elements like their hopes and fears, their history and songs, and their reputation.

We also think about a boundary around each system. This defines those things that are part of the system and those that are outside it. Each element of the system is connected to every other, affects how the system behaves, and is affected by it. All members in a family system are connected with the other members of the system (both the people and the intangible values and beliefs) and are affected by them, and affect them too. The camera that takes the family photographs can see the tangible parts but cannot see intangible parts of the system.

In the family photograph we can see grandparents, parents and children. We can see within the larger family system a number of smaller systems. These are systems too but are part of the larger family system. We think of subsystems within systems.

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