A Systems Approach to Project Management

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Written by Randy Iliff, Systems Engineer and fellow Project Manager

Updating the PMBOK® Guide every five years presents a fresh opportunity to ensure that the standard and body of knowledge properly reflect current practice within project delivery.  With the kick-off of the Seventh Edition update this month, the PMBOK® Guide will make a dramatic shift from a process-based view of the project environment to a systems-based view.

What is a systems-based view, and how does that relate to project management you may ask? 

The INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook defines a system as: …an integrated set of elements, subsystems, or assemblies that accomplish a defined objective. There’s a lot more in there about systems of course, but the key is that systems produce outcomes as a function of not only the contribution by individual elements, but also the result of all interactions between all elements.

In Systems Engineering that’s called an emergent property and the concept is one of the most fundamental insights practitioners must master. In people we use terms like personality and soul, and all agree that there is no single cell or molecule you can point to as the origin. Every project manager will attest that despite a host of common elements, individual projects are as unique as fingerprints. You cannot understand why a project succeeds or fails simply by examining the task list - to truly master the effort you must see the entirety of interactions as well as the tasks.

I’ve worked on an enormous range of projects over my career–some simple, others as demanding as standing up launch facilities for the US Space Shuttle and placing a cubic kilometer of instrumentation called “IceCube” under the South Pole. The list of tasks and parts were always different, but the connections between the tasks were surprisingly common. Over time, I realized that the underlying logic was something I could easily build upon and reuse.

Without exception I found the system perspective essential to satisfying the wide range of stakeholders involved. It helped me transform competition between interests into successful compromise. I found that view so helpful that I helped found INCOSE as a way to share the message with others.

The next edition of the PMBOK® Guide presents us with the opportunity to better reflect key interfaces that must be properly enabled in any given application context.  It can take into account the implications of those interfaces for project delivery as well as enhance the understanding of a host of other relationships that inevitably drive project outcomes.

Because our projects are always systems – not just a stack of parts or tasks—only a system view offers the richness needed to fully support the PM community and the stakeholders who depend upon us. An interactive workshop at the PMI Global Conference in Philadelphia, 5-7 October 2019, will explore the concept of a systems view of project management and its implications for the underlying principles for managing projects. If you are planning to be at Global Conference, plan to participate in this workshop that will help to inform the development of the next edition of the PMBOK® Guide.

Posted by Marjorie Anderson on: August 19, 2019 01:27 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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An excellent view on systematic approach. thanks

Amazing read, thanks for sharing

Very Interesting Marjorie, this new edition of the PMBOK will be very exciting as far as I can tell from everything that I’ve read - Looking forward to it.

Interesting heads up thanks for sharing Marjorie!

Emergent – the process of coming into being or becoming prominent. With this radical shift, the critics of the PMBOK will have no choice but to recognize its prominence!

Thank you Randy for your efforts! Nothing exists independent of a life-cycle.

Absolutely. A project to implement a new technology certainly does not live in a bubble and has many other facets in execution and delivery. Thanks, Randy.

Thanks for sharing, I can connect more as an Electrical Engineer!

The best news ever! Thank you for your sharing!

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