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The Most Important Thing: Systems Thinking

No One Thing

What is the most important thing in project management? You could say that there is no one most important thing. In the context of our bodies, is the brain more important than the heart, or lungs? One without the others is useless. Weakness in one weakens the others as well as the whole.

The same is true in managing projects. There is no single function – creating a plan, controlling the project, communication, team building, stakeholder, and human relations, etc. – that is most important. Creating a hierarchy of importance fails to acknowledge that bringing all those factors together in dynamic balance, influenced by the needs of the project environment, is critical to success.

The PMI Standard for Project Management[1] lists functions and principles. It supports the idea that none of them is any more or less important than the others.


Systems View

The way you view the world influences your behavior, your values, and goals,
and the degree to which you can handle challenges.

But maybe there is a most important thing after all. It is to view the whole, the parts, and the relationships among them in a dynamic ‘dance’ that influences performance. In other words, the most important thing is having a systems perspective with systems thinking.

The PMBOK supports systems thinking. “There are various components, such as portfolios. programs, projects, and operations, which can be used individually and collectively to create value. Working together these components comprise a system for delivering value…”[2] We can take that further to include all the project management functions and principles and the components of the project environment as part of that system.

The systems view recognizes the realities of interdependence, cause and effect, and continuous change. That makes it a practical model for describing the nature of the world of things, relationships, and the processes that dynamically tie them together. It is a model you can use to better understand your world and to be more likely to respond rather than react.

Remembering that any view or model is a concept that can only approximate reality, use the model as a way of simplifying the incredibly complex world we live in and giving guidelines for how best to manage it. The descriptions and boundaries of systems approximate the nature of the environment.


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Intersecting Systems and Processes

The systems view sees our organizations, communities, economies, projects, operations, families, selves, bodies, as intersecting systems within an overriding system of systems. Systems change as they are influenced by changes in conditions and actions anywhere within or around them. Systems are activated and changed by processes – complexes of performers acting to make change. Processes are the way systems and parts of systems interrelate.

Having a sense of the interplay among the systems’ parts (including yourself), you can more effectively influence change and promote effective performance and quality of life. While being part of the system, assessing it analytically and objectively, as if you were outside of it, promotes objectivity and clarity.


Practical Application – Cause and Effect Analysis

Systems thinking and the idea of the interdependence of equally important factors is interesting but how does it help to optimize performance?

Since the view promotes objectivity clarity, it frees project managers from the biases and beliefs that get in the way of optimal performance. The project manager with a systems view knows that everything that happens in the project is caused by something – a condition or action in or around the project.

The systems-oriented project manager uses this concept in managing projects by cultivating two perspectives, 1) the big picture – the look and feel of the entire project within its environment and 2) the detailed view of the individual factors that influence the whole.

For example, project reporting and performance assessment is best structured to assess the project from both perspectives. The big picture view tells us if there is something that needs attention. The detailed analysis of the individual factors diagnoses the cause of the problem and enables solutions.

In one project, a high-level view gave the impression that things were not going well. There were an abnormal number of conflicts, late deliverables, and abundant changes. Assessing the situation to uncover the cause, it was found that client personnel were not dedicating quality time to the project. As a result, they did not pay sufficient attention to the definition of requirements. Knowing that there was a cause behind insufficient client dedication, instead of going into excuses and recriminations, the project manager assessed the situation further. Was it that the clients were too busy doing their operational tasks, a lack of understanding of the importance of the project, or poorly executed requirements definition?

The cause was not one single factor. The system was a complex one in which each of the factors – insufficient time, lack of priority, and requirements definition performance – contributed to the problem.

With an understanding of the “system” and a sense of how best to influence change in it, the project manager initiated a communication process that identified the issues, motivated senior management to communicate the importance of the project and the role of the clients. This enabled client availability. In addition, the requirements definition team was required to change its approach to one that made client engagement easier, less time consuming and more effective.


Stepping Back

Taking a systems view enables the clarity that not only helps in diagnosing and addressing problems. It helps to avoid them by enabling project managers to step back and accurately view their project and its place in its environment. Then they can identify all the factors that are needed to achieve objectives and the ones that are likely to get in the way. With that knowledge, planning is likely to be more effective.

[1] The Standard for Project Management and a Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), Seventh Edition

[2] PMBOK, Seventh Ed, P. 8.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.