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What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is an approach to problem solving which takes into account the overall system as well as its individual parts. According to Peter Senge, it’s “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 fulfill their objectives both on time, and to budget.

Read more on the Systems Thinking resource page.

You can also find more through the Systems Thinking Specific Interest Group (SIG), which has a valuable resource area with links to material including books, papers, presentations and webinars. The aim of the Systems Thinking SIG is: “To promote systems thinking as a methodology to improve delivery of complex change initiatives“ and welcomes collaboration and input. To read more about the origin of the SIG, have a look at the article published on the integration of P3M and systems engineering.

John McGlynn’s blog also explains more about the development and aim of the SIG and encourages involvement.

According to new research from 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. Read the report to discover how systems thinking can be used in project management.

People who think about systems thinking in projects argue that when you have complex interactions between people or other variables on a project it becomes very difficult to plot a straight linear path towards the defined outcome. One solution to dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity is to use a programme approach to organising the work – a framework that expects the outcomes to be created in iterative tranches or chunks of activity. Read more in this blog by Ruth Murray-Webster.

Finally, the excerpt below explains how project managers can benefit from a systems thinking approach:

The management of change in projects that are building or modifying complex systems is challenging. We define systems as complicated if they consist of many elements of different types, although, individually, each may have characteristics that can be described in simple terms. We consider systems as complex if some of the relationships and interactions between subsystems are not easily understood, and thus difficult to manage.

But project managers can borrow from engineering systems thinking, which evolved as a consequence of technical systems becoming too complicated to analyse and manage by means of conventional engineering approaches. Systems thinking enables managers to analyse the components of systems and to handle their interactions.

Systems thinking can be applied not only to technical systems, but also to projects. In this sense, projects can be considered as complex and complicated systems, where tasks and activities are the equivalent of subsystems.

Read more about this in the recent Project Journal article, Chess or dominoes.