An Introduction to the Systems Approach

Linh Tran, Friday 29 May 2015 | Reading time: unknown

Systems Approach in Project Management

Photo by Flickr User Will Culpepper (edited), Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything in our world, universe and even galaxy, is somehow interconnected and dependent on each other and thus, things can become very complex very quickly. Which is why we need ‘systems thinking’ to deal with these complex issues. 

The last part of our monthly series on process optimization methods deviates slightly from the last three methods we have introduced. Systems theory or systems thinking is not the first thing that comes to people’s minds when thinking about project management. But it’s actually vital for PMs to understand system thinking in order to deal with the complexity of projects.

What is ‘Systems Thinking’?

Definition of ‘System’

A system consists of several interacting elements that are interrelated and interdependent and together form a whole. Every system can then again be an element of a larger system and so on. It’s important to keep in mind that each element of a system is important. Take away a part or rearrange the hierarchy between the parts and the system’s behavior and function can change fundamentally. The possibilities are endless and systems can be anything: biological systems (human body, DNA), economic systems, technological systems (computers, networks) etc. You can also distinguish between open and closed systems (or a mix of both). Open systems allow the exchange of information with the external environment (outside of the system), whereas closed systems don’t allow such an exchange.

Systems thinking is not something that comes easily to us, because our minds are trained to think linearly. We tend to try to find simple patterns in everything and often regard processes as a one way road. But in reality, not everything can be easily explained by a simple ‘cause-and-effect’ model.

5 System Elements

While every system has a unique function, they all share these five elements:

1. Objects

  • All the parts that make up a system
  • Can exchange information with each other and other systems
  • Can be abstract

2. Attributes

  • Features of a system
  • Every system has specific properties that sets it apart from other systems

3. Relationships

  • Relationship of system parts to each other
  • Relationship with other systems

4. Boundaries

  • Systems are restricted by boundary à scope
  • In open systems: information can move through boundary

5. Environmental Influences

  • All systems are part of a larger context
  • Systems influence and are influenced by their environment


Systems are often visualized in diagrams such as the ‘causal loop diagram’ (CLD). The diagram depicts a circular cause and effect ‘loop’. Unlike in linear thinking, where A has an effect on B, systems thinking assumes that A has an effect on B and this effect on B has in turn a ‘feedback effect’ on A. A causal loop is great for identifying what is the cause and what is the effect and what the relationship between them is. 

Causal Loop Diagram

Causal Loop Diagram (CLD)

Systems Thinking in PM

So, how can we apply systems thinking in PM? First, we need to think of a project as an open system that consists of many parts, such as tasks and activities. All these parts are interdependent and their function and hierarchy within the project is unique and fulfills a specific purpose (achieve objective(s)). But PM does not only consist of task management, it is also about balancing scope, time and resources, managing risks and changes. All these parts of the system, or even sub-systems, are interrelated and interact with each other. For example, if there is a delay in the project, it will lead to higher costs, if the budget is insufficient, it will affect the duration of the project and so on. Project teams are part of the larger organization and thus, have to form relationships with other departments and exchange information with them. There are internal (project team) as well as external elements (customers, stakeholders etc.) that have an influence on the project.

As a project manager you have to keep all these things in mind. System thinking can help you address these complexities in projects by not losing sight of the big picture. It can also help you understand how feedback and delay processes work and how they can affect the project. However, systems thinking is not only useful for PM, but also helpful for solving complex problems in day-to-day life. 

Read more about other process optimization methods: 

Part 1: Lean Management

Part 2: Kaizen

Part 3: Six Sigma

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