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Systems thinking in portfolio, programme and project management

Joint APM and INCOSE UK volunteer research in systems thinking in P3M

In January 2013 a joint workshop was held by the APM and INCOSE UK (the UK Chapter of the International Council on Systems Engineering) looking to explore similarities between systems engineering and project management. From that workshop was born the Systems Engineering and Project Management Joint Working Group (SEPM JWG), which was established in July 2013.

The aim of the SEPM JWG is:

“To develop and promote good practice and guidance dovetailing project management and systems engineering, and promote systems thinking across the wider decision making community in the UK* in order to support the improved delivery of complex projects and avoid common pitfalls.”

(* and to influence developments internationally)

The objectives of the SEPM JWG are to:

  • provide guidance and practical advice to INCOSE UK and APM members, including identifying, describing and sharing good practice;
  • exert influence outside of APM/INCOSE UK, generating awareness and educating stakeholders;
  • liaise and co-ordinate with other relevant bodies in recognising the foundational importance of systems engineering and project management;
  • provide networking opportunities for systems engineering and project management practitioners and encouraging engagement between the two communities.

(Note that whilst the titles refer specifically to projects and systems engineering, the JWG covers all areas of P3M and systems thinking related disciplines – including soft systems methodology, enterprise architecture.)

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking “is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management” [Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2nd Ed 2006].

Why is it important?

Complex projects need both technical and managerial leaders who understand each other’s needs and requirements, and who consequently can work in an integrated way.

There is substantial evidence that an integrated project management and systems engineering approach adds value by reducing the need for re-planning and rework, and optimising the risk margin, allowing projects to fulfil their objectives both on time, and to budget. Recent studies have found that the return on investment in improved collaboration between the disciplines is better than 7:1. Improved working practices with greater integration between project management and systems engineering result in:

  • greater stakeholder engagement throughout the project, leading to a better understanding of the problem, the real requirements and the right solution;
  • more comprehensive risk planning and mitigation activities leading to higher confidence in final cost and schedule;
  • coverage of all activities, with no missed features or requirements, enabling a more successful acceptance and handover phase;
  • better planning and progress reporting of multi-discipline work to cope with complexity, leading to a more truthful statement of the project’s current status.

There are also considerable value to be gained at the programme and portfolio levels too. Tools and techniques around blueprints, for example, are already based on systems principles, and these can be extended further through the programme and portfolio life cycles. Further information can be found in the SEPM JWG Value Proposition.

Who is involved in the joint working group?

There are around 20 core members of the SEPM, co-chaired by John McGlynn (APM) and Dr. Doug Cowper (INCOSE UK), and this body represents a wide range of industrial and academic organisations across many different sectors. Other volunteers also continue to provide support on an occasional basis, and the group is always welcome to new participants who want to get involved.

Who is the intended audience?

The intended audience for the SEPM JWG is varied, and includes students of P3M and new project management practitioners looking to become aware of developments in this field, advanced P3M practitioners looking to understand and develop their techniques in dealing with complex problems and help achieve the benefits of change, and senior managers and directors seeking advice on how to improve their returns on investment and increase the probability of successful business initiatives.

What are you exploring and working on?

The activity of the SEPM JWG is divided into workstreams looking at different aspects of the relationships and behaviours between the disciplines.

In each area, and together, we are developing guidance and collated information for all levels. This information will be published through APM and INCOSE UK in due course, accompanied with various briefings, blogs, webinars, events and conference papers. This page will be updated with new information as and when it becomes available – see the links below.

An overview of the synergies between systems engineering and project management is already available in a tri-fold guide produced by INCOSE UK (as part of a series called ‘Z Guides’). A pdf version can be can be found on the INCOSE Online website.

Key contacts

Please contact any of the following for further information: John McGlynn, Dr. Doug Cowper, Andrew Wright, Andrew Gray, Kate Rooke, Helen Nasser, Dr. Michael Eames