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Using systems thinking to identify the right problem

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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 gave an overview of the application of systems thinking to project management. This post considers how systems thinking can help identify the right problem; where a 'problem' is a situation needing improvement or an opportunity to be addressed by a new product or service. Identifying the right problem, its scope, impacts and why it is a problem is the first step in meeting the project success factors described in the APM publication Conditions For Project Success.

Problem causes and scope

Applying systems thinking to define a problem uses the steps below and is shown in the diagram, with iteration as necessary. Systems thinking makes significant use of 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.

  • Understand what is happening: identify and describe trends and patterns as the inputs, outputs and environment Analyse these to frame the problem as patterns of behaviour to see the bigger picture. Considering different perspectives improves understanding.
  • Identify what and who is involved: identify actors (internal and external) and policy environment(s) responsible for Do not assume all behaviour is driven externally.
  • Identify and understand causal relationships: identify connections and cause/ effect relationships between the trends, actors and policies and whether causes magnify or diminish
  • Develop conceptual models to describe how trends and behaviours are View causes as uncertain and on-going (with feedback influencing causes and causes driving each other). Change perspective to identify broader causes and relationships. Actor maps may suggest different perspectives.
  • Develop hypotheses for problem causes to describe how trends and behaviours are generated. Changing perspective increases understanding.
  • Test hypotheses with quantified evidence. Note hypotheses can be shown to align with situations, but cannot be fully proved; only disproved.

Application of systems thinking to identify and understand the right problem

Application of systems thinking to identify and understand the right problem

As indicated in the diagram, the scope of the problem, its causes and impacts should be documented as the analysis proceeds to form the basis for later business case development, define initial solution requirements and to start change control.

Main benefits

The main benefits of applying systems thinking to problem identification are:

  • Improved business case accuracy:
    • Provides the starting point for defining the right
    • Is necessary for an accurate business case for the project established to address the
    • Reduces potential reputational damage from addressing the wrong or incomplete
  • Improved risk identification:
    • Risks identified ‘at-source’ during analysis are better described and quantified than if defined through a later event (e.g. risk workshop).
    • More assumptions are articulated and better tested during analysis than if considered
  • Improved stakeholder buy-in and commitment to success:
    • Using the diagrams engages users, operators and senior management in their development. This helps gain their buy-in and commitment to
      • Users and operators because they participated in problem definition and understand their role(s) in the bigger
      • Senior management/ sponsors because they participated in problem definition, have a clearer problem/ impact description and a better basis to make

How to help make application of systems thinking successful in problem identification:

  • Use a suitable consultant to provide a working knowledge of systems thinking and facilitate initial analysis. While systems thinking expertise is not widespread, a working knowledge can be taught relatively
  • Keep senior management updated on problem analysis progress by using the systems thinking diagrams (e.g. context diagrams to explain current understanding of problem scope). This ensures sufficient analysis is completed before work on the solution definition starts.
  • Use gate reviews to assess whether sufficient understanding of the problem has been gained for solution definition to start. While a principle is to resist jumping to quick conclusions, problem analysis should be concluded as soon as possible. Information on gate reviews can be found in this published paper.


Applying systems thinking helps identify the right problem, its full scope and why it is a problem. It is the first step in meeting the APM project success factors. Systems thinking enables:

  • Capable and active project sponsors from a clear description of the problem, its causes and impacts using the diagrams, with these developed with the actors directly
  • Engaged end users and operators from their participation during problem
  • Commitment to success from fully understanding the
  • Clearly identified goals and objectives from a common understanding of the

Share your thoughts

Please share your thoughts and experiences 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: Artur Szczybylo/


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  1. David Liversidge
    David Liversidge 10 April 2019, 11:23 AM

    Excellent article. I am a strong advocate of 'solving the right problem' as many projects and programmes do not start from this firm baseline. Using Systems Thinking and Systems Approaches to chracterise the 'problem' is time rarely wasted and I have used these techniques effectively on a number of complex Energy and Defence programmes. The investment in this should reflect the size and complexity of the problem. Techniques such as Influence Diagramming, Modeliing and Simulation, Soft Systems, etc are all helpful to get to the root cause of the problem and connect causes to effects. I also happen to think that related techniques such as Benefits Mapping are also very useful. An interesting discussion point around this is 'who is responsible within the project for doing this?' It should really be the Design lead or Architect or someone similar (Business Analyst or Design Authority) and I think the PM's/PMO's role is to ensure this has been done effectively and that all stakeholders are bought into this analysis. I am also a firm believer in iteratively characterising the problem in parallel with iteratively developing solution options; exploring the impact of the solutions on the problem space and then iterating round until you have an optimal solution. Ideally, where this is possible, this should be coupled with an Agile approach so elements of the solution can actually be built and tested with Users and the learning fed back both to improve problem chracterisation and solution development. Prototypes, and Modelling and Simulation can also be used to examine the impact of solutions on the problem space. As a final point, I think sometimes callling it a 'problem' does not always help as it assumes that something is wrong. 'Problems' come in all shapes and sizes (e.g. delivering a new building, implementing a business startegy, growing into a new market, etc); so perhaps we should call this 'understanding the baseline situation'. More of a mouthful, but probably more accurate?

  2. Andrew Wright
    Andrew Wright 03 May 2019, 12:46 PM

    Agree completely - solving the wrong problem is dooming the project or programme to failure.