PM4DEV Blog

Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

How to Apply Systems Thinking to PM?

Development projects need to challenge their assumptions about the way they plan, implement and monitor their projects. They need to consider that projects do not function in an isolated environment but are heavily influenced by constant changes that make any plans irrelevant by the moment they are implemented. Systems thinking is an approach to see the whole picture rather than focusing on its individual components. It looks at the relationships and interdependencies among the different elements that make a project and seek to develop a holistic view, one in which change is a constant process rather than a series of snapshots taken during evaluations. The basis of systems thinking is seeing the system as a whole; it is seeing the forest rather than the trees.

The current approach of planning a project as a linear process is failing to take into consideration the importance of system dynamics and the interrelationships between the different components of a project and its environment.

A linear process assumes that the conditions and assumptions upon which the project was designed ( cause and effect analysis)  will remain constant and continue to exist in the future, this could be valid for some types of projects where there is a high degree of certainty that conditions will not change. But the complex social dynamics that development projects are involved cause the assumptions to change constantly, factors such as economic, political, natural and human events make the project objectives moving targets difficult to achieve.

  • The cause and effect relationships analyzed during the project design phase are not always linear; they are complex, unpredictable and constantly changing
  • Planning is not static; it needs to evolve through incremental adaptations feed by the insights provided by the monitoring phase.
  • Objectives need to be adjusted to new and emerging situations
  • Interdependencies and interconnections among the internal and external components of a project are usually not taken into account.
  • A feedback loop, a critical element for learning and adapting the project to meet the new challenges, is not incorporated into the cultural fabric of the organization

Systems thinking allow a new perspective to understand the ability of external elements to influence the project and offers a broad understanding of the complex changing environment that projects are involved. It forces projects to be more flexible and able to adapt to the future, especially to unforeseeable changes. It also helps understand the factors that contribute to the changes and the lessons that can be learned and used to adapt the project to its new environment.

Systems thinking highlights the importance of creating the time and space in the project for learning and adapting. Systems thinking require a better understanding of the internal and external environments, requires projects to build more flexibility to allow for changes and modifications to constantly fine-tune the objectives to meet the real needs of the communities and beneficiaries and not solve symptoms or implement isolated solutions.

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How do you define the scope of a project?

One of the leading causes for project failure is poor scope definition. It is also the leading cause of scope creep. Since the project plan reflects the work, resources, budget and schedule required to meet the scope, an accurate, realistic project definition is of critical importance.

There are seven essential elements that need to be included in the project scope definition:

  • The definition of the problem and the solution.
  • The measurable benefits of completing the project
  • A list of the major deliverables, including what is in scope and out of scope for each.
  • A definition of the target beneficiaries of the project deliverables.
  • A list of the project dependencies (internal and external)

These project definition components do not exclude other possibilities that can enhance understanding of the projects such as:

  • A concise definition of the project schedule, scope, and budget.
  • A milestone schedule that documents interim deliverables requested by the donor.
  • An impact statement that identifies what can or will be impacted by the project.
  • Strategic risks analysis and contingency plans
  • Project restrictions (environmental, political, cultural, and technological).

The project scope definition is part of the project charter and it can’t be finalized without agreement from all key stakeholders, the project manager needs to make sure they review a draft of the project charter document and get their sign-offs before moving to the planning phase of the project. It is also important that the project stakeholders understand that agreement with the project charter only means they all agree with the definition.

In order to commit to achieving the project’s objectives, detailed bottoms-up planning needs to be completed by the subject matter experts who will be performing the project work. It is only through this detailed planning that the project can confirm that the project scope definition is realistic and achievable.

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