“Footy's on, Footy's here again”: Why Systems Thinking is good for your health and says that the Cats will take the Flag*

Submitted by Alan Shiell on April 10, 2012 - 11:53

Alan Shiell, CEO, Centre of Excellence in Intervention and Prevention Science
Melbourne, Australia

* By way of explanation for those from other cultures: “Footy” is Australian Rules Football. The Cats are the Geelong Football Club: the current reigning premiers. The quote in the title is taken from a famous footy anthem by the Coodabeen Champions. Footy tipping (mentioned in text) is an Australian worksite tradition said to promote equality and well-being. Each week, you nominate which team will win each game. A correct prediction yields one point. Points are accumulated over the ordinary season (excluding the championship playoffs) and the person with the most points (i.e., the most correct predictions) wins the competition.

Footy’s back again and it’s time to dust off your colours, to speculate on your team’s prospects for the season ahead, and to wonder whether the Cats can make the Grand Final for the fifth time in six years.

A footy tipping competition is a sign of a healthy workplace, but science shows us how hard it is to predict winners, especially if you are a footy fan. Anne Kavanagh’s 2001 analysis of the results of the tipping competition organized by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society showed strong interaction effects between gender, sexuality and time. Lesbians did better than heterosexuals who did better than gay men: to begin with, but gay men were just slow starters and soon overtook straight men to end up performing just as well as lesbians. Self avowed footy fans did worst of all (at least self avowed Richmond fans did): a consequence of their one-eyed refusal to bet against their own team.

But not one to be daunted by the evidence, I have enrolled my small research centre in a local tipping comp in the hope it will improve our health, and I’m predicting that Geelong will reach the final again this year, and may even win it, doing so for the fourth time in six years. My confidence in making this assertion comes not from my footy affiliation, gender or sexuality, as Kavanagh’s research proves that each of these works against me, but from the application of systems thinking.

Systems-thinking encourages us to look not just at events and their proximal causes, but at patterns of events and the structural forces that give rise to them. Geelong’s victory over Collingwood in the 2011 final was a notable event, but more importantly it was part of a pattern: four finals appearances in five years, for three victories.

But what was especially remarkable about the 2011 win was that it happened despite substantial changes in the club. This was the year in which the CEO stood down, the coach left, the captain retired and the star player joined another club. These are circumstances that would have derailed any other club, but not one with the right practices, patterns and routines in place. These made Geelong - the team – appear immune to the disruption.

When asked to explain the club’s success in the various ‘talking footy’ shows that followed the final, new club coach, Chris Scott, revealed much about the club’s systems. He spoke of its organizational culture and how readily he fitted into it, and how readily it fitted into the local community. But most importantly he spoke of decentralized decision making. Asked what prompted him to change the defensive line-ups mid-way through the third quarter of the 2011 final when Collingwood threatened to get on top, his response was that he didn’t change the line-ups. Why would he when he had senior experienced players on the field who knew well enough what they had to achieve, and knew as well as him how to achieve it. The players called the change. They listened to the feedback being relayed to them from the coach and they reflected on how the game was unfolding. They concluded that their current approach was unlikely to achieve the outcome that had been set for them (victory) and so the defenders changed their line-up, switched their markers and nullified the Collingwood attack. The rest is history. Geelong went on to win comfortably by 38 points.

Something similar contributed to the Sydney Swans’ victory in 2005: their first Grand Final win in 72 years. Having only recently stopped playing himself, coach Paul Roos understood the players’ mindsets. He introduced a policy never to bench a player who tried something ambitious that did not come off. According to Roos, players know when they’ve stuffed up and they know best how to avoid making the same mistake twice. His unquestioning support for his players empowered the team to make decisions on the field, to take risks that won them the ‘one-per-centers’ – those small on-ball challenges that can change a game. And it did. In a year when the most senior official in the AFL predicted that the Swans would never win a premiership, they did so, by four-points, in a victory that the Sydney Morning Herald claimed had defied “history, logic, (and) a better-credentialed opposition.”

The principles being played out here apply generally to complex systems: specify the outcomes to be achieved, align the incentives, provide information rapidly on the progress being made, support reflective practice and experimentation, and leave operational decisions to front-line agents safe in the knowledge that they will quickly work out how best to get the job done.

And the relevance of all of this? In public health, while there remain significant gaps in the evidence, we know largely what to do to prevent disease. The bigger challenge is how to do it: how to adapt evidence to local circumstances, to engage with marginalized populations, to tackle inertia and vested interest, to change history. We need to see the patterns and the structural forces that cause the problems. And we need to equip frontline practitioners with the information and organizational supports they need to diagnose problems, to take risks and innovate, to act, to reflect, and to re-act accordingly. We need systems thinking. Now go Swannies.

This blog is based on the text of my Peter Quail Oration delivered at Deakin University’s waterfront campus in October 2011.

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