Why systemic thinking is crucial in project management

A systemic approach to project management is getting more and more popular in the corporate context.
In order to understand the systemic approach, the basis, and thus the system, is of great importance. This consists of interrelated elements and objects, which are linked by relationships and thus distinguish themselves from the environment.
In a corporate context, this can be applied to the interaction between different departments. Here, a department is a part of the whole system.
A systemic approach in the project tries to optimise the interaction between the departments in a way that the projects can be successfully implemented within time, cost and scope as well as in the required quality.
Several gears. [1]

The advantages of systemic thinking in project management

Project-wide / global department interconnection

Systemic thinking is a type of comprehensive, holistic, interconnected and multi-layered thinking in project management.
Systemic thinking is the ability to grasp complex interrelationships and systems, to think on different levels, to relate the actions of the individual actors to their interests and in this way to be able to make well thought-through and reflected decisions.
This seems complicated at first and usually requires a lot of experience and also the ability to stay focused. Project managers with little experience can develop and train their skills in systemic thinking in order to perform better in their projects.
The ability to make thoughtful and confident decisions is one of the most important skills that a project manager is expected to have.
In most companies, interdisciplinary cooperation is often a weak point, which ultimately leads to uncoordinated processes and a severe loss of efficiency.
In the respective companies, employees are probably familiar with sentences like
“In our company, one party doesn't know what the other is doing” or “that's not my problem”. Particularly the second quote is usually a sign of dysfunctional cooperation between the departments in the company.
That is why a project manager's trained view of the big picture across departments is a great help.

The systemic causality

Impact analysis is a central component of many assessments. Within impact analysis, causality analysis is usually the most difficult task.
Systemic approaches offer procedures and approaches that are suitable for application to complicated situations in which there are no obvious cause-effect models. Therefore, those aspects are given special attention here.
There are guiding questions about how the individual system elements interact and how this is done externally.
All actions in project management have consequences and causes. In a complex project, not only consequences and causes have to be considered, but at the same time analyses have to be carried out, dynamics have to be recorded and causalities have to be identified in order to keep the overall view.
In a project, systemic thinking means that on the one hand the project environment has to be overviewed and analysed, while on the other hand long-term consequences and external effects of decisions and actions have to be included in the considerations.
Here it is not sufficient to only look at the project and the stakeholders currently involved in the work. Future stakeholders, such as a potential buyer or customer who is not yet known, must also be closely monitored and included in the considerations.
In this context, it must be asked which persons might be able to intervene in the project at a certain stage. Only by doing this is it possible to take a holistic and complete view of decisions and contexts.

Avoiding a silo mentality

Trapped in a silo, cooperation gets lost in the project. Silo mentality in companies is a widely discussed topic and is present in almost all larger companies.
Silo mentality primarily defines the focus on one's own company department.
The consequence is that each department works for itself, thinks for itself and finds solutions only for itself – regardless of whether they do already exist in the company. There is hardly any exchange of information or cooperation across departmental boundaries.
In the worst case, the units in the company work in opposition to each other and sabotage one another.
In this case, the employees in a company have to pull together to achieve the company's goals. It is important to analyse the causes and, above all, to change the uncoordinated working behaviour.
That is why it is very important to first be aware of the silo mentality problem, secondly to prioritise it highly enough, thirdly to bring the relevant stakeholders together and fourthly to define concrete measures for minimising silo mentality.
What ultimately helps breaking through this, is that all relevant stakeholders first have to agree on the problem, which leads us to the next advantage.

Identifying and solving problems systemically

Systemic questions help to look at ambiguous and difficult tasks as well as at problems from multiple perspectives. Through this, other points of view or good ideas for solutions can be discovered and used. This especially improves meetings and can lead to better results.
When looking at the strategic and the small daily problems in a company or in other professional environments, entrepreneurs often reach the point where things cannot go on.
This happens without them having found a solution. Everything stays hidden, i.e. what the problem actually is, who is affected by it and what different perspectives exist on it.
Only when it is possible to understand the facets of a problem, a suitable solution can be found for the project.

A particularly helpful method to shed light on a complicated task or problem area is the use of systemic questions.
For this kind of analysis, for example, both the Ishikawa diagram and the 5-Why method can be used quite well. It is very important not to forget that a project is seen as part of a whole company, including strategy, company goals and expected profits.
If companies can identify the root causes of the problem, they have to look closely. They must question everything. Above all, they must realise that recognizable problems are usually only a small part of a complex system.
With systemic questions, companies can find out what is hidden behind the superficial problem. They also learn more about the will, the thinking and the feeling of the interlocutors, the clients or the individual target groups.

Focus on the project-relevant bottleneck

Management should use the appropriate methods to ensure that all employees work optimally and are deployed appropriately.
Often, however, resource planning is rather one-sided, in that the resources are only considered by the department managers in relation to one department. At this point, it is very important that the appointed project managers have a well-trained eye for systemic thinking and bring the right stakeholders together to take an overall view of the project.
Once a project plan is created, a project manager should not only consider the necessary work packages across departments in the context of the critical path by only placing relevant work packages in relation to each other and defining the longest path. Instead, it is even more important to take another look at the resources used for the planned work packages, which is done within the framework of critical chain project management.
Only then is it possible to identify the resources that are a real bottleneck for the project.
As a rule, it is human resources that lead to delays in projects, because a focus on the project-relevant bottleneck is either not done at all or only rather superficially.

Bottom line

A company that understands the necessity of systemic thinking and establishes it step by step, and above all trains managers and project managers in it, will quickly realise the above mentioned advantages and will no longer want to live without them.
Understanding the company as a system with complex and different relationships forms the basis for establishing systemic thinking.
Author: Dieter Zibert

He is trainer and consultant in the field of project management with over 10 years of experience in project management. He has led traditional, agile and hybrid projects in the railway, factory automation, automotive and healthcare industries and holds PMP, PMI-ACP, Professional Scrum Master and Professional Scrum Product Owner certifications.
He also has many years of experience in project portfolio management, setting up professional PMOs, business transformation, change management, hybrid project management by applying traditional, agile as well as critical chain project management and in the application of TOC principles. More at Green Projects Consulting.

Keywords: Project management, methods, hints, knowledge

The IAPM certification

The certification can be taken via a reputable online examination procedure. The costs are based on the gross domestic product of your country of origin.

Which certification suits you best?

For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.

From the IAPM Blog

Become a Network Official

Do you want to get involved in project management in your environment and contribute to the further development of project management? Then become active as an IAPM Network Official or as a Network Official of the IAPM Network University.