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Can we apply systems theory to Project Management

Posted on: 10 November '11
Girish Deshpande
Technical Director - Industrial Systems and Smart Energy Group

The systems theory tries to explain the dynamics of complex and dynamic systems. Many of the systems where humans are involved can be classified as (or rather will inevitably become) complex and dynamic systems. Here, we will see if we can treat project and program management as a complex system. If true, then how can we apply principles of systems theory and systems thinking to program/project management?

To start the investigation, let us first define what a complex system is.

A complex system is a system that maintains its existence and utility as a whole through the interaction of its parts. The behavior of particular complex system depends on how the parts are related and how they interact with each other, rather than the parts per say. This helps us to understand the basic structure of many different systems using the same underlying principles. This applies well to project management as well. The basic elements are same for any project – project manager, sponsors, people, customers, vendors, resources, time available, communication, processes, etc. But the way these elements interact with each other or relate to each other is what makes each project, not only unique, but also a complex system with its own unique dynamics.

Another attribute of complex systems is that they are always part of a larger system and the system itself constitutes smaller sub systems. The complex system does not live in isolation. There is hierarchy and differentiation as well. The sub systems perform specialized functions. The system is influenced by both super system and sub systems. It is easy to relate to specialized sub systems in any project and program context. But the project and program are also part of a larger strategic plan and is usually aligned with the strategic objectives of the business. We can consider this as a super system. Any change in these strategic objectives can either have a positive or negative impact on the project.

The complex systems theory tells us that the properties of the complex system are really the properties on the whole. None of the parts / elements has the properties of the complex system. The more complex the system is, the more unpredictable the ‘whole system’ properties become. These whole system properties are called “emergent properties”. They are called emergent because they emerge only when the whole system is functioning. There is a tendency to analyze the project problems and identify the root cause. We blame the elements of the project- project manager, team, unreasonable customer/vendor, lack of management support, etc., depending on how we fancy it. But we forget that the project, as a result of inter-relation and interaction among its parts, gets into certain state. Many a times, multiple parts and their unique interaction with each other contributes to the certain state in a given project.

During analysis, we break the complex system into its parts and analyze each part. It surely improves our knowledge of each element. But when you take a complex system and break it apart to analyze it, it loses its properties. To understand the working of a complex system,- how it works, its dynamics, etc., you need to look at it as a whole. This is what we call as synthesis- building parts into whole. You gain an understanding of a complex system only through synthesis. Emergent properties are visible only when the system is structured and functioning as a whole.

Projects are complex and dynamic in nature. There are many parts and each part can have different states. There can be a great number of connections because of this fact. Each part of the system does influence the whole system in its unique way. This is why, when you change one element there are always side effects. It is necessary to understand how each element fits in the whole scheme of things and how it will impact if we change it. This is what risk management is all about.

The systems theory tells us that the complex system tries to reach a state of equilibrium and then resists any significant change. This is due to the fact that the parts are connected and their connections define the system properties. But when the change occurs, it can be sudden and dramatic. With complex systems the effect may not be proportional to the cause. Many a times a small change in key part introduces a dramatic effect in the whole system. We all have read about the chaos theory- The flip of butterfly wings in rain forest causing a hurricane in US.

Not only are effects disproportional to causes, they also may not be time bound and immediate. There can be a great lag between a cause and its effect, making it difficult to relate an effect to its precise cause.

The people who have managed projects will appreciate the fact that many a times the effect takes a lot of time to become visible. The seemingly smaller causes can have disproportionately greater impact on the people and the project. This is especially true with human affairs. Things like team motivation, morale, and customer satisfaction are all subject to this phenomenon. Poor or inadequate communication can create a misunderstanding that becomes a visible problem in just a few months down the line when the customer receives a delivery. Careless off-hand remarks can cause attrition in months that follow. Although great emphasis is laid on managing technical risks in the project, the real causes of the project failures are mostly due to communication and human issues.

When we look at a typical complex project or program, we see that many of the rules that define any dynamic complex system can also be applicable to the project or program.

In the next blogs we will see how mental models of stakeholders influence the way they behave and interact with the system, types of feedback loops and their contribution to emergent properties of the system, how to understand and apply the concept of leverage in the systems thinking, etc.

Girish Deshpande

Girish Deshpande has 19 years of experience writing software and managing projects, programs and the industrial systems IG. Girish has managed projects that encompass technologies from open source, web applications, mobile applications, embedded products to testing. A majority of the projects managed by him have also been fixed priced turnkey projects with complex product development stages. Few of the projects Girish has worked on have also won the Chairman's award at Mindtree. Girish has done his engineering in computer science.

  • sunil jogdeo

    Hello, one of the best corelation and analysis of system and projects. It is my personal feeling that we are trained in working on effects than causes and we also follow the suit and train our colleagues to work on effects than causes. Given the fact that given complexity would remain a complexity only, we must try to focus and work on causes, root causes, as you have said. Thank you very much for this great contribution.

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  • Kitchen Benchtops

    Emergent properties are visible only when the system is structured and functioning as a whole.. not really original but worth sharing. 😉

  • Mukund Toro

    Insightful article.
    Relating your article to the adaptive project management model, as you go up on each dimension, the project behaves like a system. Especially the complexity dimension. For System and Array projects, you have to set aside time for integration, because you never know how the system would behave when all components come together for the first time.

    • Mukund,
      Thanks. I agree in a typical water fall model you need to set aside ample time for integration, integration testing and then rework. Agile methods may be better suited as they tend to shorten the link between outcome and feedback as well as integration cycles.