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In his book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, Alan Alda describes himself as a systems thinker. Stuck in a hospital room in Chile after an emergency surgery to repair an intestinal blockage, Alda developed a system for learning a language in a week…”You could learn to get around in any language if you concentrated on about thirty well-chosen verbs, a couple of dozen nouns, a few pleasantries and some basic sense of word order.” According to Alda, “I don’t just get flooded with ideas, I get flooded with systems.”

I’m intrigued by the idea of creating systems for thinking about complex things in very tangible, simplistic ways. It’s something I’ve seen first hand in my work at Texas Forums with Dr. Betty Sue Flowers on the Texas Health Institute’s Share Vision Project. When a group of stakeholders came together to share concerns about the state of health care in Texas and explore ideas for improvement, Betty Sue summarized their conversation into one word – RAISE. The participants wanted to raise the level of health care in Texas through:

  • Regional cooperation
  • Access to health care (other than the emergency room as primary care) for all
  • Incentives for personal responsibility
  • Sound use of resources, and
  • Education about health and the consequences of various health policies.

This elegant system for thinking about a monstor as complex as health care in Texas has become the framework holding together the varied efforts of the Texas Health Institute across Texas. With this framework, we are better able to see how very small changes contribute to a larger goal. This framework makes room for individuals and communities to take baby steps and see how they are part of a larger cause. It is simply elegant.

I am working on developing my own systems for thinking about complex issues and I’m taking note when I see others doing so. (My first attempt was not so successful. I tried to come up with an acronym for a complex research project I was working on, but I had too many vowels and could only form AEIOU no matter how I tried to change the labels. It was memorable, but not terribly meaningful!)

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