Gaining higher project benefits with project managers having systemic consulting skills



There are many projects under way in which the sponsor or customer is not satisfied, even if the respective project has delivered what was defined before. Or a certain project creates only a marginal benefit out of big investments.

Often, the reason is that project managers did only what they had been told to do – but did not, what was reasonable to do. Sometimes, the project manager just did not know better. Sometimes the project managers had some worries and bad gut feelings about the project but did not know how to address them.

From a very narrow project perspective, this may be seen as being the problem of the project sponsor or customer. But if your reputation and future project orders depend on the satisfaction of such important stakeholders, you must think broader. Many customers implicitly expect from project managers a kind of consulting, even if it has never been directly expressed.

Systemic consulting skills help project leaders to get even very early in the project a good understanding of the force-field and hidden expectations in which they will manage their project. The consulting approach also helps to define jointly with the relevant stakeholders the project objectives in a way to ensure a bigger and longer lasting benefit.

This presentation explains the systemic consulting approach and how it can be successfully used to increase the benefit of projects in IT or process improvement projects. Attendees get an insight into the most important models and tools of systemic consulting that are relevant for projects.


When is a project successful? If it delivers what was agreed upon? According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) “High quality projects deliver the required product, service or result within scope, on time, and within budget.” (PMI, 2004 p8) This is a very good definition and it helps to clarify many issues. But is it sufficient? What about a project in which scope was poorly defined because the project manager was not able to understand what the customer or sponsor really wanted? According to the PMBOK® Guide definition and also often according to contracts, those projects should be successful in case they deliver on time and within budget. But, what if the customer or sponsor is not satisfied? Though the project results meet the formal acceptance criteria, they do not satisfy the expectations the customer or sponsor had.

Whose fault is it? The sponsor's fault, because he or she was not able to describe what he or she really wanted? Was it the customer's fault for the same reason? The project manager's fault, because he was not able to ask the right questions? The truth lies somewhere in between – in the communication between the Project Manager and the customer or sponsor.

In its chapter about stakeholder management (PMI, 2004, p. 24) the PMBOK® Guide states that “The project management team must identify the stakeholders, determine their requirements and expectations, and, to the extent possible, manage their influence in relation to the requirement to ensure a successful project.”

For an organization which depends on customers who want to buy their project management service, the answer is very simple: If we do not succeed to satisfy our customer, we will lose him. And we will lose reputation. If we want to be successful in the market, our project managers must be able to get an excellent understanding of the customer's needs and expectations. Even if the customer is not aware of his needs and may have difficulties to express them.

In IT projects, project managers typically have a technical background. They know everything about servers, networks, applications, interfaces and so on. They talk a technical language. And they wish for their customers to do the same. But the customers sometimes do not fulfil this wish. They talk about expectations, needs, benefits, improvements, returns, growth or the like. It is a completely different language. So there is a need for identification, then translation and interpretation.

If there is more than one stakeholder present - and typically this is the case - things will get even more complex. The needs may differ from each other, the sponsors may be in conflict or pull the project in different directions. So, if the project manager wants to deliver a successful project, he must balance these needs somehow and resolve the conflicts in advance, at least before the scope definition is finalized and approved.

In such a type of project, the project manager – or the project management team – needs excellent communication and consulting skills. If there is only one major stakeholder present, a variety of different consulting approaches can be applied. If many different stakeholders with different interests and needs are present, the Systemic Consulting Approach has proven to be very effective, because it takes the relationship and dynamics between the stakeholders into consideration.

Systems Theory

The systemic consulting approach is based upon systems theory and systems thinking. “Systems thinking “is a discipline for gaining insights into the whole by understanding interactions between the elements that make up the whole system. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots” (Senge, 1990, p68). It became known and popular in organizational development in the 1990s through authors like Peter Senge in his book “The fifth discipline”.

Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary approach and was established as a science by Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Kenneth E. Boulding, Anatol Rapoport and others in the 1950s. Systems theory, in its transdisciplinary role, brings together theoretical principles and concepts from ontology, philosophy of science, physics, biology and engineering. Today its applications are found in numerous fields including geography, sociology, political science, organizational theory, management, psychotherapy (within family system therapy) and economics among others (Wikipedia, Systems theory).

Classical models focus on the individual person and its motivation or intentions. Or it focuses on an individual component and its purpose or function. It has a deterministic view of cause and effect and thereby reduces complexity. The systems concept shifts the emphasis from the single “component” to the interaction and dynamic between multiple components in an organization. It takes into account the interdependencies and interactions between individuals within a system, especially the feedback loops. These complex interactions with feedback loops and the self-organisation of systems have been studied in the field of cybernetics and constructivism by researchers like Norbert Wiener or Heinz von Foerster.

Organisational Development and IT Projects

In organizational theory as an example, systemic models help to describe the way organizations behave. It explains how they stabilize themselves in a complex and chaotic environment. This knowledge is important for successful organizational change and organizational development projects. Most IT projects have a good portion of organization development aspects to be considered, even if nobody is aware of it. The success of these IT projects depends not only on technology, infrastructure and processes but finally on effective usage and application of an IT system to earn the intended benefit.

Many organizational development projects have failed, because they did not take into consideration the interactions between people or departments and had a too simplistic view of cause and effect. In many companies, large IT systems are not used as intended, because the human aspects or interaction aspects have been neglected or even denied.

If project managers knew more about these aspects and were able to consult or manage the organisational development part of their IT project, the overall success rate would be much higher.

Systemic Organisation Consulting Approach

The systemic organisation consulting is a discipline that has its main roots in a special field of psychotherapy, the family system therapy. The family system therapy was initiated by Virginia Satir, and influenced by many others like Gregory Bateson, Milton Erikson, Paul Watzlawik. At the university of Heidelberg at the Helm Stierlin Institute, several psychotherapists and researchers like Bernd Schmid, Gunther Schmidt, Fritz Simon and Gunthard Weber transferred this knowledge and experience from families and applied it on organizations. The basic idea is that families and organisations have a lot in common: It is all about a group of people that interact. If you want to change the interaction or improve the system performance, very similar approaches can be applied and have proven to be successful.

One major element of the paradigm shift from classical to systemic models is the fundamental conviction that it is impossible to describe an organisation as a whole. As the constructivists say, we always take a certain excerpt of reality and believe it to be reality. As a first step, we have to accept that we as human beings use conscious and unconscious filters to sort whatever we perceive. We assign to a certain part of our perception a higher relevance and neglect or ignore other aspects because we do not think they are relevant. This is the normal human way of dealing with complexity.

Therefore, it is an illusion of project managers to believe that they might be able to describe an organisation and the change it will go through in its completeness. Whatever model they use, they will focus on certain aspects but ignore others. If a project manager believes that he knows the best solution for an organisation, he or she is probably close to failure. No project manager, neither coming from inside the organisation nor coming from the outside is an independent observer. Whatever he does or describes, he is part of the system. And he will treat some aspects to be more relevant than other aspects.

The same is true for all other people involved in the project or affected by the project. Nobody can claim to know everything and to know the truth. Everybody has his own description of the reality as he perceives and judges it. To ask the question, who is “right” or who is “wrong” with which many people try to resolve this problem does not really help, because it leads energy towards fight and confrontation but not towards a positive or constructive solution. It is better to ask questions like:

  • What is the impact of this description?
  • How can this description help for a change?
  • How can we combine and integrate different descriptions?
  • What does the description tell me about the values and beliefs of the person stating it?
  • …and many more so called “systemic” questions

The systemic consulting approach helps to get in a joint effort a shared definition of the project, especially the change aspect of the project. The major difference compared to a non-consulting project management approach is that the project is defined and set up in a way that the change will be supported by all relevant stakeholders.

Helpful Models and Tools

Several models and tools coming from the systemic consulting approach can be easily adapted and used in projects.

Enhanced Stakeholder Analysis

The starting point is a standard stakeholder analysis to identify the relevant people resp. parties affected by the project or involved in the project. This stakeholder analysis can be further elaborated to

  • assess the needs and expectations of the individual stakeholders
  • assess the relationship and dependencies among the stakeholders
  • describe the force field the project is embedded in
  • identify intensifying feedback loops the can be used to achieve changes with minor effort
  • identify inhibiting feedback loops that should be avoided to not waste effort
  • assess the impact of potential changes on the individual stakeholders
  • assess the impact of potential changes on their relationship
  • evaluate the optimal way to implement the change

Improved Communication and Involvement

The improved stakeholder analysis can be used to plan an appropriate involvement of every stakeholder in the project. A special consideration has to be taken for the early phases of the project, because in here we find the highest level of flexibility and there are many possibilities to shape and design the intended solution. Also at this early stage it is easier to deal with resistance and concerns of stakeholders which should be taken into consideration. Of course, communication and involvement have to be carefully and continually used during project execution, too.

  • Involvement in project initiation and definition of project objectives
  • Involvement in project planning especially planning of the project scope
  • Involvement during project execution e.g. at project reviews

Dreaming the ideal solution

To dream of the ideal solution is a powerful metaphor that can be used to design effective and long lasting solutions. It is especially helpful to invite critical or sceptical stakeholders in this process. Let them first share their concerns, complaints or other special views of the situation. Let them also explain their needs, wishes or expectations – however unrealistic they may sound to you. Then use their energy and creativity to deal with the dilemmas and contradictions in their statements. Typically, excellent solutions are evolving from problems for which the standard solutions cannot be applied anymore.

Fixed moving targets

One dilemma of change projects is the fact that targets and scope cannot be fixed on a low level as it is typically done in IT projects. Due to the nature of these projects, the low-level targets would change too often. There are several ways of dealing with the situation, depending on the level of confidence the sponsor or customer has and the amount of responsibility that he is willing to delegate to the project manager. Another aspect is the necessary involvement of sponsor and other major stakeholders to support the change. Some potential solutions are:

  • Define objectives on a high level (e.g. benefits for the organisation) and delegate low-level responsibility for defining objectives and scope to the project manager and the project management team
  • Define targets and scope on a low level and have a constant change control board established that is responsible to monitor and decide on the ongoing changes on a short term basis
  • Any mode in between

From a consulting perspective the key question is: what approach offers the highest probability to successfully finish the project? For many projects, the second option with ongoing change control board meetings has many advantages, even if the communication effort for the project manager is the highest and most project managers would prefer – from their own perspective – the first option.

Using past experience

From a systemic consulting perspective it is very helpful to know what the organisation has tried so far. Typically, in change projects there have been earlier tries, maybe with less investment, maybe with different approaches, maybe with higher investments or different stakeholders. This experience can be helpful in two ways: The first reason is that it helps to not repeat the same mistakes. If something did not work on the first attempt, it is a kind of natural tendency to try harder the second time. But here the key is to try smarter, not harder. Sometimes you are kind of invited by your sponsor to repeat the same mistake your predecessor did. It is important to very carefully look at these attempts.

The second reason to evaluate past experience is that it offers the consultant a lot of information on how the client system operates. What kind of values and believes there are. What interdependencies exist, what the informal force field of the organisation looks like and it provides valuable insight into the dynamics of the organisation.

Introducing Systemic Consulting in Projects

The role of the project manager changes in some aspects if he takes additional responsibility to consult the customer or sponsor of the project. It depends on his abilities and personality and of course his capacity to decide whether he can act as a consultant and project manager.

Project managers who are good listeners and are good in developing their team members already have skills and abilities that are close to the required skill set of a systemic consultant. Project managers who are straight forward and pushy are probably not the right candidates for this task. They will benefit from a professional consultant in the team.

For mid-sized projects it is a good combination if the project manager is doing the consulting at the same time. For larger projects it may be better to assign this task to a team member. In some organizations it turned out to be more effective to have a professional systemic consultant in the project management team who reports to the project manager to avoid conflicts of roles in the person of the project manager.

The experience we have made after introducing systemic consulting in projects is that some critical projects got redefined and adjusted because they had been put on a more solid foundation gaining higher customer satisfaction. In a few other projects the result of the consulting was that projects were completely redefined or even cancelled, because it got obvious that the initial project idea would not solve the existing problem. This effect can be seen from two sides: You lose a project where you could have earned money. On the other hand you do not waste your energy in unsatisfying projects.

The consultative approach also has an impact on time and cost calculation. Due to the fact that changes are normal and almost “build-in” into the projects, it is harder to estimate and define cost and duration. These projects are then typically billed on time and material. Or a phased approach with smaller chunks of work can be applied to have at least a higher level of control concerning individual steps.

Systemic consulting skills can be learned at different institutes which offer a variety of courses. These courses typically last something like 5-8 days, split into modules to gain insight in the consulting process and acquire tools that can be applied in projects. A full education for professional systemic consultants can take up to 60 days over a period of 2-3 years.


Bateson, G (1979) Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Ballantine

Project Management Institute (2004), A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Third Edition, Newton Square PA: Project Management Institute

Senge, P. (1990) The fifth discipline, the art an practice of the learning organization, New York: Doubleday

Systems Theory, (2007, February 25) retrieved from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on

© 2007 Patrick Schmid, PS Consulting International GmbH
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Budapest



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