System thinking is a holistic approach that observes how various systems interact and how the whole structure functions (Aramo-Immonen & Vanharanta, 2009). It greatly contrasts with the traditional methods that try to correlate the individual components by initially breaking them down. One major advantage of system thinking is the fact that the whole structure can be observed in detail and the flaws that may arise when the various components interact can be easily identified (Alexander, 2017). As such, system thinking has been widely used in various fields that range from science, agriculture, environment, educational among others. In all these fields of study, various components interact and this may force various imbalances which can only be maintained by a reinforcing activity (Aaltonen, 2011). The reinforcing activity will maintain the state of equilibrium and upset the imbalance that may arise.
The use of system thinking is very important in project management since it maintains the levels of production as well as the usage of resources (Sankaran, Haslett, & Sheffield, 2010). Some projects may face the time challenge and this may be countered by the increase in the number of workers. However, increase in the number of workers is a counteractive method that will lead to wastage of resources. Therefore, it is important to observe the system thinking approach prior to the actual implementation since this may present more viable options. There are various models that may be used by the project, program and portfolio managers in line with the system thinking approach. Some of these methods may be computer simulated while others require visual interpretation and observation prior to the actual implementation (Cloud, n.d.). These various models try to describe the relationship between the individual system components and in turn provide a benchmark from where the project, program and portfolio managers may base their decisions and arguments. Moreover, some models may be used to indicate the effects of certain management decisions on the overall performance of the system. Others may be used to try and demonstrate the effect of one activity on the others while others just indicate the relationship between the different project activities. Finally, others may be used to try and describe the relationship between the different elements and activities and the evolution of their interaction over a specified time period.
Regardless of the system thinking approach and model used, it is important to identify how it can be properly implemented by the project, program and portfolio managers. One major visual approach is to observe and paint a picture of the whole system and try to identify the various components and how they may interact. By observing how the various components interact and the flaws likely to be encountered, it is easy to solve the particular problem prior to the actual implementation. As a matter of fact, there are three categories of where system thinking can be implemented and these levels are; project, program, and portfolio. Related projects may be categorized into programs while related programs may be categorized into individual portfolios.
To begin with, a project is defined as a set of related activities that are aimed at creating a new product or service (Cohen, 2017). Projects vary in size and context because of the difference in production throughout the world. Moreover, projects have a defined start and finish dates with the activities correlated and undertaken with a specific objective that is mainly dictated by time, cost and resources (project management institute, 2004). The success of these projects is usually defined by the budgetary compliance, the time requirements and the levels of satisfaction that the customer indicates. The head of a project team is the project manager whose leadership style is mainly execution oriented (Alexander, 2017). In this, the project manager ensures that all the deliverables of the project are attained in the stipulated timeline and within the allocated budget. This mandate is no easy task and requires the project manager to be well conversant with the knowledge contained in the PMBOK (Burgan & Burgan, 2012). Project managers are supposed to apply the tools and skills of project management so that they can successfully complete a certain project. The number of processes required to successfully oversee the completion of a project is 47 in number while there are 10 areas of knowledge and 7 process groups (Eskerod & Huemann, 2013).
The process of project management can be broken down into three stages which include initiation, execution, and completion (Aston , 2017). In between, the project manager is faced with various responsibilities focused on the successful completion of the project. Some of the responsibilities mandated to the project manager include budgeting and cost management, risk management, resource management and allocation, proper communication to the stakeholders and all affiliated parties among others.
When related project are grouped together, they are known as programs (Emerson, 2017). A program is a group of related projects that are managed and overseen in a coordinated and proper way that eventually ensures that the benefits accrued from this management down look the advantages that would have been accrued from individual project management. Furthermore, programs include activities that are outside the scope of projects but are related to the programs. However, unlike projects, the success of a program is measured by the levels to which it satisfies the needs for which it was created. The major similarity between a program and a project is the fact that they are both temporary activities which are terminated when the objective is complete.
Considering the size of a program, the responsibilities of the program vary depending on the size of the organization and can range from business to other technical management practices. However, considering that the programs are made up of projects, it is also the responsibility of the program manager to ensure that the micromanagement of the projects is in order and that they are in line with the vision statement of the program (Thomas, 2010).
The program manager aligns the projects with the business benefits of the programs and those considered not viable or profitable are removed from the program. However, the program manager can come with ways through which dependencies between projects may be achieved which in turn may mean that more projects may be included in the program or the irrelevant programs may become useful for the general business plan of the program. When the benefits of the program are viable and can be achieved, it is also the responsibility of the program manager to ensure that the benefits will be sustained and if not, there are measures that can be put in place to ensure this realization.
The major difference between the program and project manager is observed in the type of activities managed. The latter focuses on coordinating the tasks within a single project while the former looks at different projects and determines their dependencies (Sherrer, 2010). However, programs and projects are designed in such a way that they meet the objectives and goals of the organization.
The third class is that of the portfolio. Portfolios relate programs and projects that are under an organization for the ultimate realization of benefits. Therefore, portfolios refer to a group of programs and projects that are managed singly in order to attain certain goals and objectives. According to the project management institute, a portfolio refers to the collective management of programs, projects, other portfolios and activities of the organization in order to attain a specific goal. Companies and organizations may have one portfolio or a number of portfolios that are used for the collective management of all the programs, projects and all the organizational work. Other portfolios may be established by an organization so that there is effective management of all the investments and projects that are to be undertaken.
The portfolio manager is responsible for the management of the portfolio and as such, should be well conversant with the project as well as program management (Westland, 2017). However, the number of portfolios that an organization may decide to undertake depends on the resources available as well as the interest. The programs and projects need to be viewed at the basic level and how they interact so that the management may understand how they may be used to attain the goals of the organization. Therefore, it is also important to periodically review the programs and projects within a portfolio so that there may be a periodic addition of removal.
The three levels of management that an organization may face have different demands as well as requirements. Portfolio management is responsible for the program as well as the project management since it is an overall management body. Therefore, the portfolio manager needs to align the project as well as the program strategies with the portfolio requirements. On another level, the program manager needs to align the project details with the requirements of the program in order to attain the goals of the organization. An example of a project is the construction of a building while an example of a program is the transformation of the Information technology systems of an organization. Finally, an example of a portfolio is the Ministry of defense nuclear missile program.
System thinking is a very important aspect when it comes to the management of programs, projects, and portfolios. System thinking is particularly important on all the aforementioned since the methodology considers the collaboration between the different managers assigned to the different levels (Arnold & Wade, 2015). Furthermore, recent studies have indicated that the integrated approach between project management and systems engineering increases the productivity of a project by reducing the need to rework and regroup. Furthermore, proper management and integration ensure that both the time and resource factor is optimized by the organization.
There are various advantages associated with an integration of system engineering and project management. All this is because there is a collaborative effort between the various project stakeholders. To begin with, there is an increase in the stakeholder participation throughout the life of the project which means that the problems can be tackled in a timely manner. Secondly, there is detailed and thorough risk assessment which means that the budgetary costs and allocation are straightforward. Thirdly, there is better planning of the activities and a thorough understanding of correlated activities which reduces the complexity associated with the project. A reduction in complexity ensures that the project current status and progress is truthful.
There are various system thinking tools that can be used by the program, project and portfolio managers to effectively oversee the completion of projects. However, all these tools are based on the fundamental concepts of breaking down complex systems into simpler blocks (Acaroglu, 2017). Some of the underlying concepts of system thinking are based on linkages and connections. To begin with, interconnectedness is one of the principles of system thinking and basically states that everything is related, as opposed to the linear concepts. Secondly, system thinking is based on synthesis whereby simple systems are integrated into complex systems. Thirdly, there is emergence which is the natural output of two or more products coming together. Systems are made up of individual components whose interaction lead to an ‘emergence’. Finally, there is the system mapping which is a tool that allows managers to visualize how things and systems interact.
System thinking is an important tool that can be used in project management. The tool allows the manager to visualize how the various project components interact and as such is able to visualize the risks or complications that may arise when the different components interact. An example is the manufacture of computers. Computers are complex systems that are made up of software as well as hardware. The project manager has to visualize how the software, as well as the hardware, interact prior to the actual assembly. The visualization ensures that risks are mitigated and the costs, as well as the time factor, are achieved.
There are three different levels of management in an organization: project management, program management, and portfolio management. As such, it is important for the management to be well conversant with the tools that can be effectively used in the management of projects. All the three levels of management need to be conversant with the management at a project level since portfolio and programs relate similar projects.
System thinking is a way of solving complex problems by observing how the individual components interact. As such, system thinking may be used to solve complex project related problems. The tools used by system thinkers base their argument on interconnectedness and therefore an important asset to project managers.
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