Why You Should be Using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking on Your Projects

Why You Should be Using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking on Your Projects

By Fred Payne, IIL Trainer/Consultant

I am sure you have seen disastrous reports of Mega Projects gone bad: the Big Dig in Boston, the Opera House in Sydney, and the Hoover Dam, just to name a few. These projects cannot be classified by any stretch of the imagination as Traditional, and they all had a high degree of complexity.

What factors contribute to high degrees of Complexity?

1. The “people” component, namely:

• Huge stakeholder involvement
• The fact that people who approved the project may have moved on
• Assumptions that stakeholders or project teams make at conception change over time due to the length of the project, and so on.

2. On the more technical side, the technology that is used on the project may change. In many of these examples, the technology to be used may not have even been invented, so there existed a bit of a hope and prayer, which is a considerable risk.

3. The amount of uncertainty. The original statement of work is typically very top level with little specifics, compounded by contractual legal terms that box you into a massive scope change activity, taking away from the focus on getting the job done.

4. The funding for complexity activities may not be envisioned at the beginning of the project, leading to a massive uphill battle to secure additional funding while at the same time being diverted from delivering success.

(There are many more examples beyond colossal stakeholder involvement, such as interpersonal relationships, lack of clear sponsorships, political and intercontinental conflicts and approaches, difficult contractual terms which box you into less innovative solutions, and so on.)

Sound familiar?

On the projects you manage, you have probably seen these types of complexity rear their ugly heads at some point. Maybe it’s not a long-term massive infrastructure project, or new product introduction with limited funding, or a project that is being impacted by outside forces that you have no control over; however, you have witnessed complexity in some way, shape or form.

If you think about it, this is why we need project managers! If it weren’t for complexity, things would happen according to plan. We would just need good, conscientious planners and everything would just fall into place — that would be nice!

So, if we look at Design Thinking as a way to ensure the success of our projects, we take a focused and iterative approach to dealing with the customers and the user community. Our goal is to ensure that the technology of services provided is integrated and matched to their needs, now and into the future.

In this way, we don’t end up in a situation where we provide something that no one really wanted, or doesn’t meet the changed demands of the users by the time the project is completed.

Therefore, don’t we need a way to discuss solutions with our customers or users, involving them in the solution creation even if there are iterative steps to achieve the final solution? For how else can we utilize innovation to achieve success?

That said about Design Thinking, it is only one of a few things you can do to reduce complexity or at least have a shot at delighting your customers when complexity exists.

Are the dynamics (or lack thereof) of a hierarchically structured organization getting in the way of dealing with the complexity you face on your projects? Are you free to make major decisions on your projects without driving through a full and formal decision process involving executive staff making decisions for you?

It is apparent that the embedded hierarchy approach used within organizations is impeding progress in delivering within the project systems. A lot of this may be remnants of how we were raised as children, respect for authority and hopes of transferring issues and risks up-the-chain for resolution. I contend that this approach does not work and needs to be changed!

In comes Systems Thinking. Rooted in cybernetic concepts and neurophysiology, Stanford Beers set out on a mission to develop a model of management that would work better than traditional management thinking. His Viable Systems Model takes a view on how nature works.

As an example, if you catch the flu, your body starts to react to address the situation well before you are even aware. Your temperature rises to eliminate the disease, your blood cells become imbalanced to ward off the infection, and so forth, way before you decide to go to the doctor or pharmacy to eliminate some of the symptoms with medication. There exists a self-governance that reacts appropriately to changes in the environment; in this case the infection.

The Viable Systems Model is a model and not a methodology. Therefore, it can be used in all phases of a product or service lifecycle. And since it is self-governing, it does not require the typical quality management of external parties looking in to ensure compliance. It is by its nature a self-correcting methodology that you need to be successful in delivering your complex projects.

Spend the time to set up your project using the Viable Systems Model, and it will repay a multitude of dividends. It provides you the ability of rapid response to changing environmental factors, and that rapidity avoids the costly and time-consuming energy around change.

In closing…

Businesses exist to make money. Complexity instills a risk component into making money due to the unpredictability of the future. Anticipated margins may falter due to the complexity of the contracting environment.

Our job as project managers is to minimize risk by employing techniques that reduce complexity. By utilizing a combination of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking where appropriate, we have a better chance of success, and delighted customers.

About the Author

Fred Payne provides strategic planning, change and transformational management, and merger and acquisition integration by focusing on performance excellence in a variety of roles. He has successfully led Engineering, Project, Program, and Portfolio Management operations in corporate roles with leadership development, customer and client relationships.

Comments (1)

  • Sebastian Immaraj

    Thanks for the article Fred. We need to continue this conversation on systems thinking in projects. There are many aspects of projects (technical and human) which require systems thinking.

Leave Comment