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Using systems thinking to define the right solution

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Welcome to the latest in a series of blog posts that aim to make the case for applying systems thinking to project management. The intention is to start a discussion with the broader APM community to share examples of where systems thinking has made a real difference to their projects and use this in turn to raise awareness of the main benefits and potential cost savings that a systems thinking-based approach can bring.

The previous post considered applying systems thinking to identify the right problem. In this post we will consider how systems thinking can help define the right solution to a situation needing improvement or an opportunity to be addressed by a new product or service. The post considers development of the overall conceptual solution to enable initiation of a project to develop and implement this solution.

Solution scope and requirements

Applying systems thinking to define solutions uses the following steps and is shown in the diagram below, with iteration as necessary. Systems thinking uses diagramming tools to both drive the analysis and document the results so that these can be communicated to stakeholders. A broader description of systems thinking, its application to project management and descriptions of the diagrams can be found in this Systems Thinking SIG paper.

Define solution purpose and scope

  • Describe the context that the solution must operate in, including the elements in this context.
  • Define the solution’s purpose, possibly using the 18 word technique.
  • Draw a boundary around the elements of the context that contribute to this purpose. This defines the ‘system of interest’ and is the scope of the solution.

Develop solution concept options

  • Develop solution concepts that realise the solution purpose. Consider the purpose from different perspectives and test the assumptions and mental models used in their development.
  • Identify the actors involved and their (possibly new) relationships.
  • Identify any organisational and/or technical architectures and standards necessary.

Checklists can be useful to ensure all aspects are covered (e.g. Soft Systems Methodology CATWOE: Customers, Actors, Transformation process, Worldview, Owners, Environmental constraints).

Assess options and select the option to implement

  • Assess the options, possibly using a selection checklist (e.g. to compare the benefits, problem coverage, risk appetite, limiting cost and schedule) to select the option to be implemented.
  • Confirm that the option selected sufficiently addresses the problem.
  • Document the solution concept selected (possibly using a blueprint document). This forms the mandate for the project(s) to implement this solution.
Application of systems thinking to define the right solution

Main Benefits

The main benefits from applying systems thinking to solution definition are:

Clearly defined solution goals and objectives:

  • Clearly defined solution goals and objectives are useful to have early so that they can be validated by a broad range of stakeholders, with systems thinking helping identify who these stakeholders are.
  • The solution purpose and scope provides the starting point for the definition of the specific goals for the project(s) to implement this solution.

Improved Benefits, Risk and Change Management:

  • Benefits identified during solution definition can be fully considered in context.
  • Risks identified ‘at source’ during solution definition are better described and quantified than if defined through a later event (e.g. risk workshop).
  • Change transition can be better communicated due to the fuller analysis of stakeholders and their relationships enabled by systems thinking. This is particularly the case if systems thinking was used to define the problem.

Reduced/eliminated unintended consequences:

  • Understanding how the proposed solution fits into the environment enables unintended consequences to be identified and eliminated or addressed as part of solution implementation.
  • Making assumptions explicit and testing them enables any knock-on effects to be identified, assessed and managed.

How to help make application of systems thinking successful for solution definition:

  • Focus primarily on the effectiveness of the solution to address the problem rather than its efficiency.
  • Reduce unintended consequences by confirming that the solution is not one of the 'system archetypes'. Two typical archetypes to consider are:
    • ‘Fixes that fail’ where the solution addresses the symptoms of the problem rather than its cause(s).
    • ‘Shifting the burden’ where the solution not only addresses just the symptoms, but also makes its cause(s) worse over time.
  • Solution concept development can start as soon as sufficient understanding of the problem is reached, but be aware that further problem analysis may require solution concepts to be reconsidered.


Applying systems thinking to solution definition helps outline the right solution, meet project success factors described in the APM Conditions For Project Success and it provides information from which the implementation approach can be defined. It provides:

  • Clearly identified goals and objectives from the broad analysis undertaken and from separating the purpose of the solution from the goals of its implementation.
  • Identification of appropriate technical and/or organisational standards.
  • Active sponsors and engaged users from the clear description of the solution and how it addresses the problem, with development of this solution involving the actors directly involved.
  • Commitment to success from fully understanding the solution and how it addressed the problem.

Share your thoughts

Please share your thoughts and experiences of where systems thinking has made a real difference to your projects by joining the discussion using the comments section below, joining the APM Systems Thinking SIG community or via the contact section on the APM SIG website.

Read other blogs in this series:

Image: sdecoret/


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