Systems Thinking for Project Management
© 2019 FrontLine Defence (Vol 16, No 2)

For a Telfer course on Complex Project Management, Deputy Chief of Staff–Plans, CJOC, BGen Simon Bernard,  discusses how Systems Thinking was used in a theater of war to define objectives and achieve focused outcomes.

The increasingly global interconnectivity and use of (if not utter dependence on) complex technologies seems to have seeded the relatively recent concept of Systems Thinking for problem solving.

In his paper identifying the four-step method for applying successful Systems Thinking, Dartmouth College Professor Barry Richmond, wrote: “Many intelligent people continue to struggle far too long with the systems thinking paradigm, thinking process, and methodology.” The approach, he suggests, “requires mastering a whole package of thinking skills.”

Systems Thinking is one of the four foundational pillars of the Complex Project & Procurement Leadership certificate (CPPL) and Masters (MBCPL) programs from the Telfer School of Management. The school recently invited Deputy Chief of Staff – Plans of Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC) to share with its students some details on how Systems Thinking is being used to define objectives and achieve successful whole of government outcomes.

Canadian Brigadier-General Simon Bernard drew from his experience with Task Force Kandahar, to explain how a whole of government approach to planning brought a “diversity of thinking” to the process of assessing how best to help the people of Afghanistan. “Understanding the problem is the number one step in determining how to fix it,” explained the General. This may sound obvious, but in practice we have all found that this critical step is often bypassed or given short shrift.

By knowing, in advance of any engagement, meeting or event, what effects you are trying to achieve, allows everyone to focus on the more important aspects to ensure the target is met.

BGen Bernard noted how the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, with so many factors at play, “highlighted the need for complex thinking.”
If there had only been military planners at the table, there would have been “a tendency for convergent thinking” because they would have all been exposed to the same type of training. Having other players involved in the planning discussions provides the kind of “richness of divergent thought” that is so important to successful Systems Thinking.

To be true to the methodology, planners must also make every effort to consider the situation from the perspective of the other side. For instance, what is influencing their goals, what restrictions do they face, what support do they have? Planners must consider the root causes of the problem, which may be instability in the region. Some issues require looking at the problem from the point of view of widespread corruption, which may impede aid or supplies from getting through to the intended destination, as with many humanitarian missions.

The military design methodology (Design, Plan, Act) and PEMA (Plan, Execute, Measure, Adjust) are an important focus for military planning, but the Canadian Forces College is also working to modernize the single perspective culture in favour of creative thinking, innovative design and systems thinking that will allow all players to cooperate, learn and adapt for the intended outcome. “Looking only through the military lens is no longer enough for the complex problems we face. It will require more than the military solution – a whole of government and security team, including cyber security […] will become critical going forward.”

Embrace the Complexity
BGen Bernard described one of the theories being taught at the Telford School, but  the two Complex Project & Procurement Leadership programs also cover other complexity theories, and how these methods can be used in the context of mitigating risk, and better project and program delivery in the business environment.

Graduating candidates have been telling course organizers that although the concepts seemed foreign and hard to grasp at first, sticking with it changed the way they thought about and addressed problems and situations. “It caused a fundamental paradigm shift in the way I approached complex issues and in turn finding creative solutions,” said one.

According to Telfer’s data, over 95% of their graduating class this year have been promoted and/or have been part of major capture contracts and have been recognized for program delivery excellence.

Complex projects are representative of the multi-faceted problems facing managers today. Such problems usually are interconnected with many layers of additional obstacles in rich and complex environments or contexts.

According to leading management systems professor Russ Ackoff: “Managers are not confronted with separate problems, but with situations that consist of complex systems of strongly interacting problems. I call such situations ‘messes’.”

Confronted with such ‘messes’, managers are often asked to provide – and sometimes tempted to adopt – simple solutions. However, while quick fixes may address problem symptoms in the short term, they seldom tackle root causes. Hence, the problems keep on reappearing time and time again.

Major projects are, by nature, complex. Most are saddled – right out of the starting gate – with unexpected complicating factors, and few stand a chance of being delivered on time, within budget, and according to customers’ specifications.

Knowing this, managers may be tempted to blame a poor execution of the project plan and to call for more rigorous analysis, and better planning and implementation of project management tools. This blame game is representative of reductionist thinking, which hopes to solve problems by breaking them into small fixable parts and applying simple solutions. Reality seldom complies.

By contrast, systems thinking takes a holistic approach to look, instead, at the ‘big picture’ while embracing the complexities of how problems interact with each other to form a ‘mess’.

Looking at challenges from this wider, inclusive perspective, leads managers to understand that problems are neither obvious nor pre-determined, and solutions must be constantly reviewed and managed.

From the Telfer point of view, the appropriate response to complex problems does not lie with simple fixes but must be constructed with the wide range of stakeholders who are implicated in and impacted by the ‘mess’. This perspective does not necessarily mean the traditional analytical tools must be abandoned – but it does demand that managers complement and integrate those tools with holistic systems approaches.
The ever-evolving and interactive complexity inherent in procurement problems obliges systems-thinking managers to be creative in how they tackle them. Often, several combined approaches will be required to create a solution that addresses the root causes of a complex situation.

Systems thinking not only offers a number of different methodologies for dealing with complexity, it also encourages consideration of all perspectives.

To be capable of continuous improvement or learning, we must engage in a process of critical reflection on knowledge and values at all levels. This is vitally important to enable the continuous adaptation required to renew the organization’s capacity for effective action.

Complex Project Landscape
Systems thinking is a major unifying theme for the Master in Complex Project Leadership program at the Telfer School.
Successfully navigating complexity requires approaches that fit. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety suggests that an effective understanding of a problem calls for a balancing approach that matches the complexity and sophistication of the problem. Therefore, if the problem is a “mess”, it is highly unlikely that a simple or cookie-cutter approach will work.

It’s time for a widespread culture change, and the Telfer programs were designed to offer numerous opportunities to develop and refine systems thinking skills, either through the application of ST methodologies to complex problem situations and/or complex projects, or through the development of systems perspectives in the key project management disciplines learned in the course, such as workplace projects, leadership, strategic decision-making, or risk management.

– Chris MacLean is Editor-in-Chief at Frontline magazine.