Systemic project management

Yan Song

Abstract


Traditional project management theories and best practices focus primarily on managing the triangular constraints of time, budget and scope (framed in terms of concrete outputs). It has proven valuable and successful in helping organisations to recognise, plan and execute changes to ongoing operations in a disciplined and repeatable manner. However, as the global economy and society continue to become more knowledge based and integrated, this simple industrial model has become increasingly inadequate and, if narrowly focused and pursued, harmful.

 

As for all branches of human knowledge, the problem did not result from knowledge itself but from a misalignment between the complexity of the phenomena and their conceptual representation or knowledge.

 

There have been numerous attempts to extend the industrial model to include additional dimensions of project complexity (Cicmil, et al. 2009). The vast majority of such efforts still suffer from the same root cause of the original model: the mechanical conception of project management as dealing with objective facts (e.g. schedule and budget) on one hand and subjective constituencies (e.g. sponsors and users) on the other. There is a lot of literature on both aspects, but very little integrating the two into a coherent whole. In the author's experience, this lack of integration between the objective and subjective aspects of project management has become the single most critical risk of project success and the greatest advancement opportunity in the profession.

 

The author has spent more than a decade in managing and learning from large-scale projects in organisationally and culturally complex business environments. To cope with the vast complexities of real-life projects, he has had to 'borrow' knowledge and practices from many other fields to supplement traditional project management methods. Two such 'external' disciplines - systems thinking and leadership development - have proven particularly valuable.

 

This case study describes a practitioner's perspective and technique for understanding and extending traditional project management to greater complexities that are typically encountered in an organisational setting. In this conception of and approach to project management, the practitioner (Self), the social environment (Organisation) and the professional responsibilities (Work) are treated as one integrated system. The dynamics of these relationships are shown to be the primary drivers of the health and success of the individual components, in contrast to the mechanical theories and practices of traditional project management. This new approach and associated set of methods is called 'systemic project management'.

 

The case study is organised in the approximate chronological order in which the author developed, tested and expanded this new approach to project management, continuously learning and refining the methods through iterative integration of theory and practice. Part I summarises the core principles of systems thinking and leadership development as applied to project management; Part II lays out a step-by-step practice guide to aid project management professionals in defining, planning and executing a real-life project systemically; and Part III provides an example of how this method can be scaled up in a typical business organisation setting. Due to the length of this case study, only Part III is included in the current issue. Part I and II have already been published in the previous issue of this journal.


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