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. 

John McGlynn

Posted by John McGlynn on 14th Dec 2016

About the Author

John McGlynn, board chair

John is a Director at Atkins, a member of the SNC Lavalin Group, and one of the world’s 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 in 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).

John became a trustee of APM in 2014 and was elected Chair in November 2016. He has been instrumental in leading APM through the award of the Royal Charter and developing APM’s new strategy, Inspiring Positive Change.

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