Using systems thinking to execute the project right

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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.

This post considers how systems thinking can help execute the project right to develop the solution to a situation needing improvement or an opportunity to be addressed by a new product or service. This article mainly assumes systems thinking was used for problem identification, solution definition and project establishment, described in previous articles, but also considers how to start using systems thinking during project execution if not.

Managing, delivering and reporting the project

Systems thinking enhances existing project management methodologies rather than replace them. The main project execution activities and the systems thinking principles that can support them are given below and in the diagram. For all of them, it is important to resist the urge to jump to quick conclusions. A broader description of systems thinking and its application to project management can be found in this Systems Thinking SIG paper.

  • Managing:
    • Make assumptions explicit and test them to avoid confusion and miscommunication when authorising and receiving work packages and other project related tasks, particularly acceptance criteria.
    • Apply the systems thinking approaches used to establish the project when developing detailed plans for future work or assessing whether proposed changes should be incorporated.
    • Consider the bigger picture and recognise that project and solution structures (including commercial aspects) drive the behaviours of the project team and project suppliers.
    • Appreciate that mental models (or mindset) often define the assumptions being made.
  • Delivering:
    • Appreciate that your mental models of end users drive assumptions when developing transition plans.
    • Understand the bigger picture of the end users’ context and consider their perspectives when planning project deliverable transition to operation.
    • Make assumptions explicit about the maturity of the deliverables being transitioned into operation and the users’ ability to receive these deliverables at these levels of maturity.
  • Reporting:
    • Consider the sponsors’ perspective(s) to present the bigger picture of the project in their context when reporting project progress. Have the detail associated with each reported point available on request.
Using systems thinking to execute the project right


Main benefits

The main benefits of using systems thinking to execute the project (assuming it was used for problem identification, solution definition and project establishment) are:

  • Better management decisions:
    • Better informed management decisions as a result of the fuller understanding of the problem, how it is addressed by the solution and the relationship between project scope and approach.
    • Fuller assessment of project changes due to fuller understanding of the relationships between project elements, a deeper understanding of the project benefits and how proposed changes impact these.
  • Improved transition planning:
    • Smoother transition of deliverables and earlier achievement of benefits from more appropriate transition plans because end users’ context, details of the problem and the solution are better understood.
    • Reduced or eliminated unintended consequences because of the fuller understanding of the context within which the solution will operate and definition of the most appropriate transition approach.
  • Improved lessons learnt:
    • Deeper learning during project execution and closure as systems thinking gives the context for lessons rather than, as is often the case, summary ‘lessons’ that make little sense to those outside the project.
    • Increased (re-)use of existing lessons by identifying relevant lessons due to similarity of context.

Starting to use systems thinking during project execution

Research by the Systems Thinking specific interest group (SIG) found that about half of project managers use some elements of systems thinking about half the time. While using systems thinking from the start of problem identification results in most benefit, it is also beneficial to apply systems thinking during a project. To benefit from starting to use systems thinking during project execution: 

  • Develop a project context diagram and actor map to understand the project’s context and who is involved.
  • For specific situations (e.g. issues, changes, risks, decisions):
    • Understand the bigger picture of the situation: draw a context diagram for the situation.
    • Change perspectives: develop an actor map and consider the situation from their perspectives.
    • Recognise systems structure drives behaviour: draw a structure diagram to identify elements, their connections and hierarchy. Identify cause and effect relationships using causal loop diagram(s).
    • Make assumptions explicit and test them: brainstorm these with colleagues and review.
    • Develop conceptual models and hypotheses for situation causes. Test them with quantified evidence.


Using systems thinking during project execution enables the project success factors described in the APM Conditions for project success publication to be met. It also helps execute the project right and provides information from which to define the most appropriate transition approach. It supports:

  • Effective governance tailored to the needs of the project and its environment.
  • Continued commitment to project success by the project team and project suppliers.
  • Maintained security of funding from supportive sponsors and organisations.
  • End users and operators engaged to be able to derive benefits as they receive project deliverables.

Share your thoughts

Please share your thoughts and examples 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:

Applying systems thinking to project management

Using systems thinking to identify the right problem

Using systems thinking to define the right solution

Using systems thinking to establish the right project

How Portsmouth council used systems thinking to deliver a better service and reduce costs

Applying systems thinking to project management: summary and last thoughts

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David Cole

Posted by David Cole on 30th Jul 2019

About the Author

David Cole has 30 years experience of managing projects, programmes and portfolios to deliver products, services and business change in private and public sector organisations. As a management consultant he also advised these organisations on the management of their programmes and portfolios. He is a Chartered Engineer, a PRINCE2 Practitioner and a founder member of the APM Systems Thinking SIG.

He currently serves as the APM co-chair of the Systems Thinking SIG.

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