Can systems thinking deliver better project outcomes?

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Complex projects need managerial leaders who understand systems and the benefits that systems thinking can bring. Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static ‘snapshots’. Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the structures’ that underlie complex situations. (Definition Peter Senge – 5th Discipline)

There is substantial evidence that a systems approach adds value by reducing the need for re-planning and rework, and optimising the risk margin, allowing projects to fulfil their objectives both on time, and to budget by;

  • Greater stakeholder engagement throughout the project, leading to a better understanding of the problem, the real requirements and the right solution;
  • More comprehensive risk planning and mitigation activities leading to higher confidence in final cost and schedule;
  • Coverage of all activities, with no missed features or requirements, enabling a more successful acceptance and handover phase;
  • Better planning and progress reporting of multi-discipline work to cope with complexity, leading to a more truthful statement of the project’s current status.

The idea of a system as 'a set of parts which, when combined, have qualities that are not present in any of the parts themselves' is a very productive way of looking at projects, programmes and portfolios. There are many 'elements' or 'parts' to a system which may include, for example, people, processes, information, organisations, transformation and services, as well as software, hardware and complex products. We believe systems thinking is about understanding what the project or programme is trying to achieve, ensuring that activities and dependencies don’t fall between the cracks of either contractual responsibility or discipline silos. 

Here are some questions you may want to consider and if possible share your experiences

  • Do you have experience or examples where systems thinking has been successfully applied to different types of projects e.g. Infrastructure, business transformation, ICT, etc?
  • Do you have examples where a systems thinking approach could have helped your project?
  • Do you think systems thinking in projects or programmes is widely understood?

The APM Systems Thinking Specific Interest Group (SIG) has been created to allow project managers to share ideas, promote the practice of systems thinking and share case studies. If you would like to understand more join the SIG today. 


Posted by John McGlynn on 14th Dec 2016

About the Author

John McGlynn, APM chair

John is a director at Atkins, one of the worlds leading design, engineering and project management consultancies known for its breadth and depth of expertise in responding to the most technically challenging and time critical projects. He has 30 years experience of delivering projects in Europe and the Middle East and the last decade he specialised in complex acquisition programmes. He is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of three institutions the IET, CIPS, APM and is an APM Registered Project Professional (RPP).

He co-chairs the joint working group between APM and the UK International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE UK) looking at ways project managers and system engineers can work together to deliver better programme outcomes through doing the right things at the start of projects and then doing things right through project and programme delivery. He believes that complex projects need both managerial and technical leaders who understand each others needs and can work in an integrated way.

John is an avid supporter of APM’s new strategy, Inspiring Positive Change, and aims to ensure he does all he can to represent members interests in achieving this. He believes APM has done an outstanding job in professionalising the discipline of project management throughout its 40 year history and is passionate about continuing that journey, pushing the boundaries of collective knowledge particularly in the delivery of complex projects.

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