Toward a new mindset

bridging the gap between program management and systems engineering

What is systems engineering? What is program management? Depending upon the person who responds to these questions, the answers could vary considerably. But in the end, these questions are not the most critical ones that need to be answered.

The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) and the Project Management Institute (PMI®) believe that program management and systems engineering share vital objectives:

  • Delivering value and benefit to customers and end users;
  • Integrating the required experience, knowledge, and roles to successfully achieve objectives and complete initiatives; and
  • Functioning effectively in a more complex environment where program requirements and outcomes are not clearly defined or have numerous components to manage.

INCOSE and PMI believe that through strong collaboration, the two organizations can help their practitioner communities achieve their shared objectives.

The Cultural Barrier

For many years, a cultural barrier has been growing between practitioners of systems engineering and of program management. While program management has overall program accountability and systems engineering has accountability for the technical and systems elements of the program, some systems engineers and program managers have developed the mindset that their work activities are separate from each other rather than part of an organic whole. Consequently, work often costs more, takes longer, and provides a suboptimal solution for the customer or end user.

The leaders of INCOSE and PMI believe this cultural barrier and mindset can and must be overcome. By working together, the organizations hope to foster a team approach that will benefit their members and their organizations, and ultimately the stakeholders who depend on them.

Historically, program managers and systems engineers have viewed the stakeholder problem entirely from within their own disciplinary perspectives (see Exhibit 1). As a result, the two groups have applied distinctly different approaches to the key work—managing the planning and implementation, defining the components and their interactions, building the components, and integrating the components.

Addressing the Stakeholder Problem: Stovepipe View

Exhibit 1 – Addressing the Stakeholder Problem: Stovepipe View

Instead of seeing that both groups have a shared responsibility for the work, the focus often shifts from the customer or end user to the individual practitioner’s perceived professional “turf.” As a result, “disintegration” can occur in the following ways:

  • Costs and schedules are developed independently of the technical scope and lack reliability.
  • Work and effort are duplicated, and program team members often receive conflicting direction.
  • Requirements are tracked and managed separately, often resulting in something different from what the customer or end user expects.

The disintegration between the systems engineering and program management processes produces a “solution” that is less than optimal. The work quite often exceeds budgets and timetables. The primary purpose of successful program-management processes and perhaps even the delivery of the technical requirements are comprised. And the customer or user is dissatisfied.

A New Mindset

What is required is a different mindset, one that redefines professionalism as achieving the mission and having a satisfied customer or end user versus struggling to protect turf. Systems engineers and program managers bring unique skills and experiences to the programs on which they work. Those unique capabilities are essential for the successful execution of the program, as are the skills and capabilities of team members from other disciplines (such as cost accounting, legal services, and procurement). However, there is also a “shared space” where program managers and systems engineers collaborate to drive the program team’s performance and success. That shared space includes, but may not be limited to, such capabilities as these:

  • Leadership
  • Negotiation
  • Communications
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Sustained focus on mission
  • Risk management
  • Configuration management

This new mindset recognizes that there cannot be two separate views of the stakeholder problem, but rather a single one that incorporates all elements of the program (see Exhibit 2). This mindset requires that practitioners have the attitude and desire to engage in the “shared space.”

Addressing the Stakeholder Problem: Team View

Exhibit 2 – Addressing the Stakeholder Problem: Team View

What emerges is an understanding that all of the work is relevant to both groups, and that the delivery of stakeholder value requires an appropriate contribution from both areas of professional expertise. Each discipline would also benefit from an understanding of the other’s discipline. It is imperative that each group have a minor focus in the processes of the other’s — in much the same way many university students in the United States have both major and minor areas of study.

Translating the New Mindset into Collaboration

The analogy of the university student with a major and minor area of study can be a template for the approach that INCOSE and PMI might take to break down the cultural barrier that separates their practitioner communities. The two organizations can work together to use the resources they have developed for their “major” curricula to create “minor” curricula for members of the other group. Most importantly, the two organizations can collaborate on activities that will help shift the focus to the “shared space” and to the capabilities that practitioners of both disciplines need to sustain an integrated focus on achieving the mission.

In this way, program managers and systems engineers will develop an appreciation for the dual roles that each group must play and will gain an understanding that they are like two interlocking pieces of a puzzle. When they are separate, only partial views of reality can be seen. Only when they are synergistically brought together can the larger picture become clear, and the puzzle can be solved. The whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. INCOSE and PMI have begun developing plans to work together toward the “future view” and will be releasing more details at the appropriate times.

© 2011, Langley, Robitaille, Thomas
Published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Facilitating Contextual Ambidexterity in a Global Operations Expansion Program member content locked

    By Turkalainen, Virpi | Ruuska, Inkeri One of the focal challenges in managing global operations is how to utilize existing knowledge to avoid reinventing the wheel.

  • Narración y neurociencia member content open

    By Stevenson, Doug Los directores de proyectos se enfrentan a la abrumadora tarea de simplificar lo complejo. Se comunican continuamente con varios equipos involucrados en un proyecto. Sin embargo, deben hacer que su…

  • PM Network

    Proyecto del año de PMI 2020 member content open

    Durante décadas, Europa ha dependido en gran medida de una nación, Rusia, para suministrar su gas natural. Casi el 40 por ciento del gas natural de la Unión Europea proviene de Rusia. Una nueva…

  • PM Network

    2020 PMI® Project of the Year Winner member content open

    By Parsi, Novid| Wilkinson, Amy For decades, Europe has relied heavily on one nation, Russia, to supply its natural gas. Almost 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia. A new pipeline could change that.…

  • Project Management Journal

    Proposing a Multilevel Approach for the Management of Uncertainties in Exploratory Projects member content locked

    By Gomes, Leonardo Augusto de Vasconcelos | Brasil, Vinicius Chagas | de Paula, Rafael Augusto Seixas Reis | Facin, Ana Lúcia Figueiredo | Gomes, Frederico César de Vasconcelos | Salerno, Mário Sérgio Managers of exploratory projects might face uncertainties over long timeframes at different levels (e.g., project, portfolio, organization, and network). Although literature offers some guidance on…