Systemic thinking as a mechanism for managing risks arising from behavioural complexity on major projects



Advances in Project Management Series

Tony Llewellyn

United Kingdom




As projects become more complex there is a greater expectation on the project manager to resolve a new set of challenges that move beyond the technical delivery of task completion. As project leader, you must now become more skilled in the management of behavioural dynamics, and facilitating the creative input from a wide range of individuals from differing professional, technical and cultural backgrounds.

This is not a new insight. Any review of the project management literature over the past five years will pick up on the shift in the dynamics of the profession, and the need for project managers to become more adept in the use of the so called ‘soft skills’. There is plenty of advice available to a project manager on how to be a better communicator. Such advice is however, of limited value unless it sits within a framework that the project team can understand and then apply with some degree of consistency. Learning to adopt some of the practices associated with systemic thinking may therefore be a useful starting point in learning to understand the factors that are influencing the behaviours that you see, both in your team and within the stakeholder group.

What is systemic thinking?

Systemic thinking is a mechanism for looking at a problem or issue from a number of different perspectives. The process requires a different way of thinking. The starting point is to recognise that our initial reaction to most problems tends to be instinctive and emotional. Our mental filters do not therefore seek all of the information that would be required to understand the full breadth of the issue. The process requires the thinker to slow down and ask a much broader series of questions. The purpose is to understand the impact of the different systems that have a direct and indirect effect on the situation. A systemic approach can be particularly useful in understanding the apparently complex patterns of behaviour that can be observed in people working in groups or teams. Understanding these forces therefore improves the chances that a solution can be found to potential problems that address the root cause, not just symptoms.

Behavioural and systemic risk

Any discussion on systemic processes can quickly become lost in the application of the many academic theories that surround the topic. To illustrate the concept in the context of a major project, I provide the following illustration, which comes from an exercise that I undertook with a colleague in December 2014. We were asked to help facilitate a workshop with a number of experts who had many years experience of working on large projects in the Higher Education/University sector. The purpose of the workshop was to try and understand the risks that are common to developments on university campuses. The discussion focused on the different stages of a typical project and how the various stakeholders interacted both with each other, and with the project team. The top 10 risks that they identified are set out in Table 1. This was an unexpected outcome, as when we began the exercise we had expected to find a greater degree of focus on technical risks. It is also interesting to note that whilst this workshop was primarily concerned with risks associated with the construction of educational facilities, the schedule of risks would be familiar to anyone working on any major IT, engineering or mining project.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK. Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.



About the Author

pmwj41-Dec2015-Llewellyn-PHOTOTony Llewellyn

United Kingdom



Tony Llewellyn
has 30 years’ experience working in construction and property development as a Chartered Quantity Surveyor. He is an executive coach with an MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change. Prior to starting out as an independent coach and consultant in 2011, Tony has worked both on the client and consultancy side of many major projects, including a senior management role in a substantial UK construction consultancy, and also as a director of a global engineering business. He is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster.