Project Management

What the Pandemic Is Showing Us About Systems Thinking

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Categories: Disruption

by Dave Wakeman

I’ve continued to watch as the world works its way through the coronavirus pandemic, keeping an eye on leadership styles around the world. The successes in places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany can teach us a great deal about what a great project manager can do and achieve with a good scope, strong leadership, trust in their team and consistent communication. 

But over the last week or so, I’ve also been toying with something else that I think is playing into the success or failure of countries’ responses to the pandemic: systems thinking. I keep coming back to the idea that maybe one of the big challenges that folks are dealing with is that their systems aren’t set up to help them be successful during this pandemic. Then, I got to thinking about what we can learn if that is the case. 

Here are three things that have stuck with me the last few weeks:

1. To have a successful theory, you need a unified theory of your system.

In the United States, we’ve seen each state approach the coronavirus in its own way, with different measures of success and failure and different ways of communication. 

That’s one extreme.

On the other side of the world, in New Zealand, we saw the prime minister lock down the entire country with a shelter-in-place order mandating people to stay exactly where they were. 

The idea behind New Zealand’s thinking seems to be that if everyone in the country were on lockdown at the same time and didn’t move, they would be able to stop community spread in its tracks. 

In the U.S., having 50 different governors offer up 50 different plans for their states has allowed people to interact with each other much more freely, increasing the likelihood of community spread. 

To put it another way, thinking about New Zealand as one big system enabled them to act with the entire country in mind and take actions as a unit, whether or not every area needed the exact same prescription at the moment. The system took precedent over any individual component. 

2. Looking at the world as a system can help point toward a quicker recovery.

Adaptation is at the heart of strong systems. And, as we have seen the pandemic move around the world, countries have had their impact from the virus start at different points and end at different points. 

Take, as an example, the German Bundesliga—the first professional football (soccer) league to return to action, providing a roadmap for how football clubs around the world could manage playing games without fans and ensure players remained healthy after returning to training. 

The same idea is taking place as we look to reopen many of our economies. In Japan, it was reported that the country’s response to the pandemic was not completely successful, but that having their population conditioned to use masks helped them avoid a tremendous disruption due to the virus. 

Both of these examples can point us toward solutions that will enable us to reopen more quickly and, hopefully, reduce the possibility of a deadly second wave of coronavirus infections. 

You can already see this taking shape in the way that La Liga, the Premier League and the NBA are working to restart their leagues. And it is prominent in much of the messaging about the importance of wearing a mask to prevent community spread of COVID-19. 

3. Successful systems still need good communication. 

Even in a huge system, we are seeing that communication is essential to adaptation and dealing with a challenge. 

This is true in any situation. 

The countries with greater success navigating the pandemic have had their leaders communicate in a way that is consistent, clear, built on facts and science, and gives folks points of reference. People are able to see the success or failures of the actions that they are taking, which provides motivation and compliance. 

I’ve said this many times before, but in general, around 90 percent of your time as a project manager is going to be spent communicating. In looking at the pandemic and the responses to it as a system and through the lens of a project manager, I can see that this number still holds pretty true, no matter the nature of your project.

It’s another way of saying that leadership matters, communication matters and having a grasp on the changing facts of the challenge you are working to overcome and the willingness to constantly communicate them in an effective manner makes this pandemic look less unusual—and more like a really complicated project. 

But, maybe I am biased. 

What do you think?


Posted by David Wakeman on: June 15, 2020 09:40 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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US has disconnected theories, NZ has a unified theory with this comparison you made, I couldn’t help but think and give some of my brain on how India dealt with this pandemic.
India has a unified theory,Every decision came from the top but what it failed in is good communication.
It was completely overblown and also in this case a unified theory that is copied from other unifed theories from other countries did not help, there was suffering of the daily wage workers. While in the west, there were unemployment benefits India has very little of them, what it has is other inefficient food distribution schemes reeking with inefficiency for which all the daily wage earners who had to leave urban places were not eligible, there was a massive exodus of people from urban areas to rural areas just when it is not supposed to happen. In many places Police were seen beating whoever came out.
I just want to support your assumption that a unified theory backed by research and good communication would have made these projects successful for countries around the world and also some tailoring approach would have made a ton of difference, things like rent support scheme for urban wage earners like what the government in Canada did for businesses.

Having all three pointers simultaneously is the real challenge here, and it seems it compounds as your system gets larger.

Communication is really the key. We've seen how poor communication caused chaos and confusion in the United States especially, but also around the world. Leaders need to find a common message and communicate it throughout the system. This is obviously easier in a small country, but it is still scalable for larger countries.

Another key component is decision making. Decisions need to be made from the front line, by people who know what is going on. In this pandemic, the message from the front line conflicted with leadership across the political spectrum. By allowing the front line to inform the leaders about the realities of the crisis, the messaging could have been better tailored to meet the need. An agile, highly-reliable approach would enable better communication and enhance the flow of information.

We can learn from the successes and failures of the global response to the pandemic and incorporate the lessons into our organizations.

Very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

Very interesting., thanks for sharing

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