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BoK 7: What do we mean by social systems?

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It’s always been well understood that successful project delivery depends on clear roles and responsibilities, teamwork and communication between the people involved. Why then would the team working on the seventh edition of the APM Body of Knowledge say that APM’s foundational knowledge resource needs to reflect the emerging view that projects are social systems?  

There was a time when the dominant thinking and writing about projects was rooted in a ‘product’ mindset. Projects were viewed as being complex largely because they were big, costly and technically difficult. Projects that exist to bring technically challenging designs into being are still difficult, but what makes them even more complex is when funding and/or delivery is dependent on a large number of stakeholders - especially when they are not all from the same organisation. What you might call socio-political complexity really increases the challenge for the project manager.

People who think about systems thinking in projects argue that when you have complex interactions between people or other variables on a project it becomes very difficult to plot a straight line path towards the defined outcome. One solution to dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity is to use a programme approach to organising the work - a framework that expects the outcomes to be created in iterative tranches or chunks of activity. But the response to social complexity is not as simple as using a programme rather than a single project approach.

In a social system - a network of relationships that form a coherent whole - small changes in behaviour from one stakeholder can have a large effect on the overall project. Where there are political, often hidden, agendas; factions; conspiracies; unexpressed requirements and/or emergent changes in context, the traditional project language of control is misplaced. Solutions to problems need to be explored creatively, recognising inherent subjectivity, not just worked out technically or objectively. This brings new challenges for project managers and calls for some different approaches to planning and control.

The ideas underpinning systems thinking as a whole and social (sometimes called soft) systems in particular require some thinking about themselves. The team working on the seventh edition will be working hard to make sure that the topics cover the breadth of current thinking about projects in our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

If you’d like to explore this subject further, the APM Systems Thinking SIG would be a great place to start. They also have a valuable resources section with many of their publications made available to all.

Please contribute your thoughts to these ideas in our consultation on the seventh edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. There’s no need to answer every section, you can spend as much or as little time as you wish. By taking part, you’ll also get the opportunity to read and comment on the first draft, so don’t miss out on your chance to share your views. 




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  1. Judy Payne
    Judy Payne 16 April 2018, 02:58 PM

    This is such an important question. Thank you, Ruth, for raising it. The Knowledge SIG contribution to BoK7 will include the social nature of knowledge and KM. Social is right up our street! How do you think we can apply social systems thinking to the BoK7 production process? From the SIG fringes, the path to BoK7 looks very straight so far. And we’re all travelling the path alone. Further down the path, will there be conversations between people with different perspectives? A bit of iteration, maybe? There’s such a great opportunity here for a spot of collective sensemaking about project management. What do you think?