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Systems Thinking in Complex Projects

Systems Thinking in Complex Projects

By Max Langosco
September 6, 2022

Two Things Are Happening

First, project management is being applied to contexts where the outcome is both ever more important and uncertain. Consider, for example, the adoption of project management to deliver strategic corporate objectives or using project management approaches to do pure research. Both examples are of common occurrences.

The second change in our environment is one of human nature. We are craving more and more control, so the risks we deem acceptable are getting smaller. Think of the risk of someone getting hurt on the job, for example. The need to control every aspect of our work, from technical to safety, and from engagement to communication, is considered more important than ever.

Taken together, these two changes mean that while the spectrum of possible, and often, unexpected and dangerous outcomes is growing, the tolerance that we have for sub-optimal outcomes is smaller. In other words, our margin of error is shrinking, while the consequences of mistakes grow and are difficult to estimate.

Skating at the Edge of a Crisis

Think of a CXO level project manager running a project which delivers strategic objectives for a corporate strategy in evolution; or of a scientist project manager, researching a result which emerges from the work itself, in effect determining business objectives as it emerges. The skill sets needed by those who run such projects are only partly overlapping with standard project management skills (including Agile approaches which may be necessary but are often not sufficient). Such projects skate at the edge of a crisis and need greater awareness about the “interconnectedness of all things,” (as Dirk Gently, the brilliant Douglas Adams character, would say).

There is even a deeper change that such project managers will need to make to skate at such an edge with a reasonable chance of success: giving up two mental models that we often use, and which are obsolete—

  1. the mechanistic system (as a metaphor for how we collaborate), and
  2. the illusion of control (when determining how to run a project).

If they succeed in doing so, they will have two reasons to “relax”.

Relax 1: It’s Just the Edge of Chaos

In Complex Adaptive Systems, the elements of the system are constantly adapting to each other; a change in one element may mean a ripple effect of change across the system which is often unforecastable. However, the way these systems work is similar to how human teams work.

Using a Complex Adaptive System as a mental model rather than a mechanistic one can make a big difference. For example, focus goes from the tasks and tools to the people and their interactions. Leadership moves from telling and motivating individuals, to maintaining a systemic balance such as to permit both enough “order” for the team to feel as one, while at the same time permitting enough “chaos”, i.e., individual action and change, to enable innovation. This sweet spot is what we call the “Edge of Chaos”.

All this means, that rather than trying to control the single elements of the system, we aim to take action to influence the project system, as a whole.

Relax 2: Nothing is Under Control

That’s right! Absolutely nothing. This is the lesson from Adaptive Systems: Keep the focus on the system overall; the single elements cannot be controlled. Even more than that, they should not be controlled. Because the whole strength of these systems is that the elements can adapt to each other. Think of two co-workers who, noticing a shift in what generates customer or business value, agree on a more efficient collaboration process amongst themselves, rather than sticking to obsolete targets and objectives. Why would you want to block them? Yet you could never have planned for it. The team leader’s job is to make sure it all works together, to keep the view of the whole.

To steer the whole project system towards a delivery of value, however, you will still need to have the possibility of overview which will enable (or at least not hinder) adaptability. Here, we introduce a tool which has been around for decades but has not made the inroads it deserved into project management: Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking analyzes so-called reinforcing and balancing feedback loops within a project system. Here are two examples.

Reinforcing feedback: a delay in reaching a deliverable triggers additional control from management which generates additional reporting, less time to work, and finally, more delay.

Balancing feedback: the delay triggers a reaction in the team to break the task down into its component elements and prioritize the value-generating ones, postponing the rest, and the delay is reduced.

Mapping these feedback loops (and if useful, simulating them) enables a holistic approach to leading a project and in creating more resilient and effective systems which have a higher likelihood of delivering strategic, complex, and adaptive deliverables.


On the one hand, project management is used in areas where the outcome is less predictable than in traditional projects; on the other hand, we are craving control more than ever, and error margins (in such projects) are decreasing. The development and implementation of AI in project applications, the “need for speed” that both strategic and research projects are developing, are destined to make these tendencies stronger.

It is useful to understand that mental models determine the way we act, and that we are using two obsolete mental models in critical decision making. If we can shift to a broader way of looking at how we interact and how we collaborate, we may take advantage of the tools proposed above: Adaptive Systems and Systems Thinking. These can open the doors to a more purposeful project management practice in those key projects where complexity hinders our results and increases our threats.

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Max Langosco

Senior Trainer at International Institute for Learning, Inc.

Max Langosco is a change and risk focused project, program, and portfolio management expert, with over twenty years of experience in developing project management, and in recovering troubled projects in high stress complex contexts. A natural team player, Max brings an agile, value focused approach to complex management, and to driving change.

His focus areas in project management relate to both operational and management. On the operational slide, Max leads change management, troubled projects, complexity, project kick-off, and blending traditional and agile approaches. On the management level, he specializes in systems thinking, deployment of PMO, evaluating project management maturity, transitioning to an agile mindset, and developing and following up maturity road maps.

Max Langosco, Author, Headshot

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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