Complexity, projects and systems: Just going around in circles?



Advances in Project Management

By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire




Last month’s article in this series emphasised the need for project resilience and the ability to bounce forward. This month’s contribution looks at the idea of systems thinking as a potential lens that can be used to build resilience and overcome the challenges of complex systems.

Project management and systems engineering share common roots dating back almost seventy years. Proponents of both disciplines trace management and systems features all the way back to the Manhattan Project, the US programme to develop the atom bomb. Following the end of the Second World War and throughout the Cold War, the race to develop new weapons technologies and improved space exploration capability resulted in the conception, elaboration and enactment of distinct management and systems practices.

Indeed, ‘modern’ project management and systems engineering were formulated as approaches to address the emergent complexity of defence weapons acquisition and aerospace projects. Major undertakings such as the Atlas program, Polaris, Sage, Project Mercury and the Apollo program required integration of complex components, sub-systems, systems, projects, programmes and specialisms. The view that large engineering, defence and aerospace systems will inevitably necessitate large organisational systems was articulated by Sayles and Chandler (1971), noting that the socio-technical complications require a new type of resolution approach.

The effort to manage and address the exponential increase in complexity demanded by the increasingly ambitious undertakings attempted after WWII, spawned a number of fledgling disciplines, including systems analysis, systems engineering, systems management, systems integration, project management and programme management. With each of these disciplines emphasising certain features, aspects and procedures for overcoming complexity, they independently evolved into specialised approaches and domains. Each community further developed a vocabulary, body of knowledge and a set of normative (and at times prescriptive) approaches for solving problems, reducing complexity and delivering solutions.

Thinking (and learning) through systems

Systems proponents continued to develop a body of methods, approaches and tools that was increasingly applied to society as whole. Over the last seventy years many of the approaches have been consolidated around the notion of system thinking.

Systems thinking offers holistic approaches that focus on the way constituent parts of a system integrate, influence one another, and shape the overall behaviour of the system. Behaviour can be explained as a result of the processes and feedbacks that occur within the parts and influence the entire system and other connected systems. Systems thinking offers a general approach to problem solving that avoids reductionism or local emphasis, favouring a more inclusive and comprehensive view that considers relationships and influences.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK. Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.



 About the Author



Darren Dalcher, PhD

Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK



Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK. He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London. Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond.

He is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board. Prof Dalcher is an academic editorial advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.