Systems Thinking Boosts Project Outcomes

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November 2023

Meet Our Contributors

Image of Lenka Pincot

Lenka Pincot


Chief of Staff to the CEO,
Project Management Institute

Paris, France
20+ years experience

Image of Richard McConnell

Richard A. McConnel


Professor of Tactics,
U.S. Army Command
and General Staff College Institute

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA
20+ years experience

Image of Dan Daly

Daniel Daly


Knowledge Programs Manager,
Project Management Institute

Washington, DC, USA
12+ years experience

A lesson we have learned from the disruptions of the last few years is the interconnectedness of humankind and the systems we have built. We are still dealing with the consequences of the COVID-19 virus, triggering a global economic crisis, causing volatility in the labor market and underlining the need to build more resilient global supply chains.

At Project Management Institute (PMI), for example, we experienced an overnight shift to a fully remote work model, expanded regionalized staff and produced a broad range of virtual learning events to meet diverse customer needs. This rapid shift necessitated the immediate adoption of new platforms, adherence to different local employment rules and embracing an agile mindset to develop new ways of working. 

Systems Thinking part 1 visual

Concurrently, PMI has implemented tools like interactive learning and focused resource hubs to support the broad, global community of project managers who are reckoning with the impacts of the climate crisis and the need to activate environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies. In this complex setting, project professionals will need to move from a linear thinking model, which considers simple cause and effect as “if I do this, then this will be the result,” to a systems thinking approach that considers the multitude of different interactions, dynamics and factors that can and will impact their project success. Systems thinking is an approach that can help practitioners broaden their view and create what Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline — a widely read book on systems dynamics, calls a “learning organization,” to adapt and respond to changes that determine project outcomes.

“In this environment of continual churn, systems thinking considers mitigating factors which have direct impact on overall project outcomes and allows for the interconnectivity of dependencies to be weighed against each other,” says Daniel Daly, knowledge programs manager at PMI. “Consider the International Space Station, which orbits the earth every 90 minutes. For the seven astronauts to safely and successfully live and work in space, what might be a few of the multitude of interconnected systems that are integral to the success of any mission? An obvious answer would be the technical systems that are involved in maintaining their health.”

Daly, former project management curriculum lead at the NASA Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership, continues, “As there are multiple space agencies from more than a dozen countries involved in maintaining the International Space Station, each space agency possesses its own unique cultural point of view. All these people, along with all the systems they represent and maintain, must be able to work together in identifying problems and keep these interdependent systems operating to ensure mission success.”

As civilization moves toward ever greater levels of interaction and complexity, demonstrated by wicked problems like the climate crisis and homelessness, systems thinking can help us avoid having to say, “I didn’t see that one coming,” as we implement solutions. That explains why the iceberg model is a popular metaphor systems thinkers apply to consider the factors and influences that are lurking below the surface. To learn more about the fundamentals and application of systems thinking, PMI asked subject matter experts in the fields of business analysis, systems engineering and project management to share their perspectives on:

  • How systems thinking can be used as a model for problem-solving
  • How systems thinking can improve decision-making
  • How leverage points can help produce the desired project outcomes

As you read this article, keep these points from systems thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff in mind:

  • A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts.
  • A system is a product of the interaction of its parts.
  • The performance of a system depends on how the parts fit together, not how they act taken separately.

Systems Thinking iceberg image
Figure 1. Iceberg model. Modified from Systems thinking: The iceberg model.

"Systems thinkers like to use the metaphor of an iceberg. We see the iceberg's tip, perhaps ramming a ship. But 90% of the iceberg's mass is underwater, shaping ocean currents and the iceberg's behavior at its tip. Pattern is the submerged mass, and awareness of it illuminates specific events."

Ju Young Lee, PhD
Postdoctoral associate at the Center for Building Sustainable Value
Ivey Business School

Using Systems Thinking as a Model for Problem-Solving

“Systems thinking is a cognitive process that can aid project managers through the employment of logic to solve problems that range from challenges responding to simple rules to dilemmas that are verging on complex,” says Richard A. McConnell, DM, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired). “Start by zooming in on the distinct parts of the problem to understand their distinct nature and then interpret how they connect to all the other distinct parts of the problem. You should then be able to zoom out and see what parts of the problem no longer connect or were misdiagnosed and therefore are no longer part of the problem to solve. Simply put, where rules work for problem-solving, systems thinking is best.”

McConnell illustrates this point by sharing the story of an extremely dangerous situation where he was thrust into the role of project manager and employed systems thinking to design a solution. “I was the second-in-command of a 400-person battalion that was given the mission to transport captured enemy ammunition all over the Sunni Triangle (Iraq) in soft-skin vehicles,” he says. “An increase in attacks on vehicle convoys was becoming a reality. My commander and I realized that we needed to produce some kind of protection, or we would lose soldiers due to enemy action.”

Image of Dan Daly

Systems thinking considers mitigating factors which have direct impact on overall project outcomes.

Knowledge Programs Manager, Project Management Institute

Systems Thinking part 2 visual

McConnell took steps to address this systemic failure. The vehicles had not been designed to withstand combat conditions and were insufficient to achieve the battalion’s goals. McConnell would need to design a solution that didn’t exist. “We decided to construct armor protection packages. We had never built armor for vehicles before, so we had to identify the discrete parts of the problem first, determine how these parts connected to each other, logistically support the effort and then produce the armor and install it — ultimately determining its level of effectiveness through assessment. The value of this effort was we lost zero soldiers to enemy action while executing over 700 convoys, traveling 2 million miles (over 3.2 million km) across our fleet and moved 750 short tons of ammunition.”

By first zooming in on the different small pieces of the problem — how to build a steel door or machine gun mount — and then zooming out to examine how effective these individual solutions were at meeting the overall goal helped to unravel the layers of complexity and ambiguity. “Although this was a complicated problem, it responded well to rules once we understood them,” McConnell says. “My soldiers and I had never built vehicle armor before. But as we started analyzing the bits and pieces of the different parts of this problem, the microlevel solutions to parts of the problem coalesced into the desired macrolevel outcome: safety of our soldiers.”

Key Takeaways

  • Systems thinking is a valuable model to make sense out of a complicated problem, especially in a high-risk environment and under a time constraint.
  • Understanding the distinct parts of a problem and the complex interactions between those parts is the first step to designing a solution.

Developing a Systems Thinking Mindset to Improve Decision-Making

“Systems thinking provides an outstanding possibility to improve decision-making by understanding the context and impact of feedback loops that determine the system dynamics,” says Lenka Pincot, PMI-ACP, PMP, PMI-PBA, chief of staff to the President & CEO at PMI and transformation leader. “Because, while we all want to make the best decisions, the complexity surrounding us does not make it a simple task.”

Pincot first learned about systems thinking as a college student and has been an enthusiastic proponent ever since. “We were tasked to play a simulation game designed by Professor John Sterman (now at the MIT Sloan School of Management) based on a real case example — a fast-growing company turning heads for its unprecedented success, only to suddenly go into bankruptcy. I was intrigued by the fact that the situation was described, modeled and it could be simulated how the company would develop if different decisions were made. I started to learn about systems thinking and developed my own leadership development simulation game to reinforce learning by understanding feedback caused by our decisions.”

Pincot cites Professor Jay Forrester, a pioneer in the field of systems dynamics, when discussing the vital role feedback loops play in the thinking process. “He described why feedback loops are essential components of a system,” Pincot says. “They help us to understand why our decisions may cause unintended consequences, what is causing disruption of a system or when a system is in equilibrium, growing or shrinking.” Pincot further elaborates by noting, “Systems thinking guides us to translate and visualize a complex environment into a set of elements and their relationships. While this might be a characteristic of other analytical or problem-solving methods, systems thinking classifies the system elements and their relationships based on their attributes to build an understanding of the dynamic of system behavior.” 

Image of Richard McConnell

Simply put, where rules work for problem-solving, systems thinking is best.

Professor of Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

Systems Thinking part 3 visual

To deal with such a high level of complexity, Pincot looks for system leverage points that can be translated into the project roadmap, objectives and execution plan. “What are the leverage points? System leverage points are represented by elements with a high impact on the system dynamics. Practically speaking, they are part of the feedback loops that dominantly drive the system outcomes. In the case of solving a problem, they lead us to the identification of the root cause. Without finding them, you put your project at risk of focusing on less efficient activities that may slow you down or even threaten the ability to achieve project objectives.”

Pincot describes a time when she was tasked with rescuing a poorly performing customer service provider. “Our competitors were gearing up and getting ready to overtake our customers. When the stakes are so high, I deploy systems thinking automatically. Identifying the root cause and steps with the highest impact on the results is the ultimate key to success.” By utilizing systems thinking, Pincot discovered that the entire problem was caused by “broken trust between the teams and leadership and not the technology, not the process design, not the skills, nothing that could be found in our systems and documentation. Without uncovering this through the system analyses, I would probably not have set the priorities right.”

Pincot encourages all project professionals to develop a systems thinking mindset: “Systems thinking is a discipline that provides powerful methods to understand complex situations, develops the ability to predict outcomes of business scenarios and ultimately improves the ability to foresee and avoid unwanted consequences of our actions. And, as project managers are often tasked to address problems instead of just executing ready-defined and thought-through projects, that’s when system thinking comes in place.”

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the impact feedback loops have on decision-making is essential for learning and responding to change.
  • Identifying system leverage points can help you focus on the activities that will be the most efficient way to impact outcomes.

Add Systems Thinking to Expand Your Project Management Toolkit

Systems thinking is a valuable tool when managing complex organizational relationships and interdependent project outcomes. In a recent example, researchers Hugo Jose Herrera de Leon and Birgit Kopainsky applied systems thinking to investigate resilience in food systems in countries where climate change poses a threat to families who rely on subsistence farming. Their research will help pinpoint and direct long-term projects to ensure food security.

Thinking systemically enables all project professionals — including program managers, project managers, systems engineers and business analysts — to weigh differing perspectives against each other to help organize and evaluate competing priorities. It allows for better insight and effective decision-making within the intricate functions of multifaceted organizations and aids practitioners to envision the unintended consequences when seeking solutions to wicked problems.

In addition, this approach can help provide a better understanding of the intricacies present within individuals, work environments, teams and departments that all play pivotal roles in the pursuit of project success.

PMI would like to thank our contributors for their invaluable contributions to this discussion.

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Image of Lenka Pincot

As project managers are often tasked to address problems instead of just executing ready-defined and thought-through projects, that's when systems thinking comes in place.

Chief of Staff to the CEO, Project Management Institute