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Systems Thinking: How is it used in projects and project management? 

This study builds on the work used to establish the Systems Thinking SIG as they seek to identify the range of activities classified as systems thinking and how these are seen to add value to projects. The study aims to produce a guide on how to apply systems thinking in projects and to understand whether systems thinking is a critical success factor in complex projects. 

Who is the intended audience?

All project professionals that have an interest in or want to know more about systems thinking – i.e. organisations that undertake major, complex projects (typically long duration and with unclear requirements at the outset).

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How to cite this research
Emes, M. & Griffiths W. (2018). Systems Thinking: How is it used in Project Management? Association for Project Management.

Why is it important?

Interest in systems thinking within the APM and beyond is growing, with a joint working group set up in 2013 between the APM and the UK Chapter of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE UK), and an APM Specific Interest Group (SIG) in Systems Thinking launched in December 2016.

As projects have grown more complex, there has arisen a need to develop techniques to manage that complexity. Major projects could often benefit from the application of systems thinking, for example to:

  • Improve the realism of cost and schedule estimates by understanding that projects are not deterministic.
  • Improve the integrity and hence value of the product that is delivered by anticipating possible challenges at the interfaces and by anticipating additional enabling tasks and systems beyond the obvious. A close relationship between (systems) engineers and project managers ensures fewer unexpected surprises.
  • Improve the understanding of stakeholders’ needs throughout the (extended) project lifecycle.

What did we discover?

Systems thinking is not a new technique for project management, but neither its application, nor understanding of its benefits, is widespread. Interviews and two surveys were conducted to explore the use of systems thinking in project management.

The study found that the majority of respondents believe that project managers use some form of systems thinking at least half of the time, but many recognised systems thinking tools like rich pictures and soft systems methodology are not widely used in projects. Use of systems thinking tools is slightly greater for more experienced project managers, and for those working in sectors that deliver complex technological products such as defence and aerospace. Further research is needed to explore in more detail the sector-level usage of systems thinking

What were the main challenges?

Obtaining participating organisations and individuals for the surveys and interviews that provided a good cross section of the UK project profession.

Who took part in the research?

Anonymous in accordance with UCL Ethical Standards.

11 Project Management experts from industry and academia were interviewed, and two surveys were conducted. The first included 61 members of the APM with an interest in systems thinking, and the second had 571 respondents as part of the Wellingtone annual state of project management survey.