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Can systems thinking deliver better project outcomes?

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. 

8 comments

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  1. Gordon MacKay
    Gordon MacKay 16 December 2016, 03:47 PM

    I just joined the Systems Thinking SIG Followers, and wonder if the Peter Checkland 'Systems Thinking Systems Practice' methodology including CATWOE: Customers - Actors - Transformations - Weltanschaung (World-View) - Owner and Environment, is in use. I learned of it back in the 80's, but wonder if the approach has moved on much since then, and, if so, who are the standard bearers please?

  2. Gordon MacKay
    Gordon MacKay 19 December 2016, 11:52 AM

    Hi This may be of interest? https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/systems-thinking-complexity

  3. Mercedes Vaughan-Davis
    Mercedes Vaughan-Davis 19 December 2016, 03:09 PM

    Gordon - That was also my thought. Peter Checkland's methodology inc CATWOE was still being taught at Uni in 2010.

  4. Viswa Pinninti
    Viswa Pinninti 08 January 2017, 07:02 PM

    Hello, Systems Thinking is recently being talked about in capital projects in Downstream( Refineries, Petrochemicals & Chemicals). I see the benefits of having system thinking and seeing the big picture. Not having the big picture and not forseeing the issues of Integration in big capital projects could result is delays and cost overruns

  5. Iain McCallum
    Iain McCallum 09 January 2017, 01:41 PM

    I would go beyond this topic title and say PM cannot deliver effective projects without embracing Systems Thinking!

  6. Iain McCallum
    Iain McCallum 09 January 2017, 01:44 PM

    I would go beyond this topic title and say PM cannot deliver effective projects without embracing Systems Thinking! The UK Government is backing the Systems Engineering Masters Apprenticeship Programme (SEMAP) which is especially formed to aid the growth of SE (including Systems Thinking) in a cross-domain manner. For more details look at http://www.semap.co.uk/

  7. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 13 January 2017, 09:51 PM

    Thanks for the good post, also thanks+ Gordon for the URL link, appreciated. Bibliography which I thought adds value: Reynolds Martin and Holywell Sue, Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical guide, Pub. by Springer. ISBN 978-1-84882-808-7 Ramage Magnus and Shipp Karen, Systems Thinkers, Pub. by Springer. ISBN 978-1-84882-524-6 - Early Cybernatics - General Systems Theory - System Dynamics - Softand Critical Systems - Later Cybernatics - Complexity Theory - Learning Systems

  8. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 01 February 2017, 08:36 PM

    Team, FYI a free short course with Future Learn will commence on 6th March - Systems Thinking and Managing Complexity. I have registered and hope to have a synergistic 1 + 1 = 3 exchange, consider to join the course also and later provide feedback in respect of a short report on positives and negatives to aid others for future. Richard Sunny Riyadh