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Insight into systems thinking benefits on projects

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Posted by James Driver on 1st May 2018

No project is an island and treating it as a single entity with closed boundaries can hamper successful delivery.

But a systems thinking approach sees wholes rather than parts, spots patterns of change and recognises subtle interconnections that could have a major bearing on project progress and outcomes.

According to new research from the Association for Project Management (APM), conventional project management relying on prescribed systems and processes leaves no room for flexibility. Even agile methods are not enough as projects increase in complexity.

The research was awarded funding from APM’s research fund in 2017 to gain a better insight into the current level of understanding, application and recognition of the potential benefits of systems thinking.

“Systems thinking is not new, and is becoming increasingly important as we seek to take on more and more ambitious projects,” said Dr Michael Emes, Director at University College London’s Centre for Systems Engineering and who led the research.

“We’re hoping that its value will increasingly be recognised and it will become part of the standard project management toolbox.

“The research is important because it helps us to understand where people are already applying systems thinking and to what extent they are finding it’s adding value.”

Techniques and tools including rich pictures, causal loop modelling, concept mapping and flow diagrams are also examined and outlined in the research report - Systems Thinking: How is it used in project management?

The research results indicate that while there is recognition of some sort of systems thinking among project professionals, greater awareness is needed and better director-level support.

“Our suspicion was that systems thinking usage by project managers might have been quite low, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of respondents believed that project managers use some form of systems thinking at least half of the time,” said Dr Emes.

This builds on the work being done by the recently established APM Systems Thinking Specific Interest Group (SIG) on how systems thinking can be applied to improve project delivery, and opens up potential for further research.

Further Systems Thinking SIG resources can be found here.

APM’s Research Programme supports projects that address key issues related to the management of projects, programmes and portfolios.

Find out more and download the report 

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