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What the natural world can teach us about systems thinking

Blog posted by: Natalie Latham, Coaching Academy Programme Manager, 18 January 2024.

I studied systems thinking in 2020-21 and have watched with fascination as Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) formed, bringing to life the theories I studied.

It makes sense that we work collaboratively, putting the needs of people at the centre of all we do. When we think systemically and sit in the middle as users of a system, we have valuable insights as to what that system may need to be more efficient, based on our own experiences.

I’ve been lucky to be part of various collaboratives where organisations came together working towards a common aim and was inspired by how these groups worked. I began to see and hear how there is much more that contributes to the health of communities and individuals than GP and hospital appointments.

But the reality? There’s a lot more to it than just having a group of passionate practitioners coming together working to that common goal. Bureaucracy and conflicting demands all impact. But surely, it’s doable? There must be others who have tried to work like this who have had similar challenges and some successes?

Earlier this year I watched SpringWatch. It was filmed at RSPB Arne in Dorset, which is home to rare breeding birds, specialised heathland insects and all six of the UK’s native species of reptiles.

My systems thinking radar immediately sparked when the team mentioned that RSPB Arne is part of Purbeck Heaths, the UK’s first ‘super’ National Nature Reserve. This super reserve came into being to create a joined-up approach to conservation with leading partners, landowners and local communities coming together to conserve nature and enhance habitats. Through working together and combining land, expertise and a common vision, the partners are “taking important strides forward in landscape-scale conservation and nature recovery”.

I imagine that prior to creating the Purbeck Partnership each partner had their own geographical silo. If you’re a bird, or an insect, or one of our native reptiles, you aren’t bothered where a boundary for one organisation ends and another begins. You want to move around freely, for the water to be clean, and to benefit from best practices in consistent conservation.

I am sure that the individual landscapes forming this super reserve need different approaches to maintain and grow (just like some of our ICS places have different demographics and needs) but some needs are consistent across boundaries. When that is the case isn’t it better to share expertise that looks after the wider system?

Watch this video from the Purbeck team and consider:

  • What were the practical things that needed to be done to enable the “super” reserve? How did the old boundaries change and the new boundary form? How did any physical changes impact on the partnerships culture?
  • What processes are needed so there is less constraint of traditional organisational boundaries?
  • How does technology assist in this new way of working?

The health and care system is complex and the challenges faced by our Integrated Care Systems is immense. We should learn from this nature-focused partnership to see what could benefit our health and care communities. After all, we are living in our own unique habitat, and we need to break free of the constraints of our historical boundaries for the future health of our communities.

Natalie, Coaching Academy programme manager, works with her team to deliver our facilitated system support programmes. You can find out more about this programme and others on our Coaching Academy webpages.


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