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The Action Scales Model: A conceptual tool to identify key points for action within complex adaptive systems.

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Mytton, Oliver T 
Whole Systems Obesity programme team 


BACKGROUND: Systems thinking is integral to working effectively within complex systems, such as those which drive the current population levels of overweight and obesity. It is increasingly recognised that a systems approach - which corrals public, private, voluntary and community sector organisations to make their actions and efforts coherent - is necessary to address the complex drivers of obesity. Identifying, implementing and evaluating actions within complex adaptive systems is challenging, and may differ from previous approaches used in public health. METHODS: Within this conceptual article, we present the Action Scales Model (ASM). The ASM is a simple tool to help policymakers, practitioners and evaluators to conceptualise, identify and appraise actions within complex adaptive systems. We developed this model using our collective expertise and experience in working with local government authority stakeholders on the Public Health England Whole Systems Obesity programme. It aligns with, and expands upon, previous models such as the Intervention Level Framework, the Iceberg Model and Donella Meadows' 12 places to intervene within a system. RESULTS: The ASM describes four levels (synonymous with leverage points) to intervene within a system, with deeper levels providing greater potential for changing how the system functions. Levels include events, structures, goals and beliefs. We also present how the ASM can be used to support practice and policy, and finish by highlighting its utility as an evaluative aid. DISCUSSION: This practical tool was designed to support those working at the front line of systems change efforts, and while we use the population prevalence of obesity as an outcome of a complex adaptive system, the ASM and the associated principles can be applied to other issues. We hope that the ASM encourages people to think differently about the systems that they work within and to identify new and potentially more impactful opportunities to leverage change.


Peer reviewed: True

Funder: national institute for health research collaboration for leadership in applied health research and care north west coast; FundRef:


complex adaptive systems, complex intervention, complexity, health policy, leverage points, systems science, Humans, Public Health, Organizations, Obesity, England

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Perspect Public Health

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SAGE Publications
MRC (MC_UU_00006/7)