Project Management and social systems?

For any successful project management, social systems are vital. Everyone knows good project management depends on clear roles and responsibilities, teamwork and communication between the people involved.  But APM’s Body of Knowledge, in its foundational knowledge resource, suggests a need to reflect on the emerging view that projects are social systems.

The editor of the 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge is Ruth Murray-Webster who is well versed in social systems. Ruth is currently Director, Change Portfolio and Group Head of Risk at Associated British Ports. In her role there she is responsible for coordinating the approval and delivery of an ambitious portfolio of change to processes, systems, behaviours and ways of working. She also delivers a risk and change consultancy services via her company Potentiality UK.  Previously, Ruth was Director of the Risk in the Boardroom practice for KPMG LLP following 10 years as a Director of Lucidus Consulting Ltd. Ruth was awarded Honorary Fellowship of APM in 2013 for her contributions to risk and change.

There was a time when projects were believed to be rooted in a ‘product’ mindset. Projects were viewed as complex largely because they were big, costly and technically difficult. Some still are but what makes them even more complex is large numbers of stakeholders. What you might call socio-political complexity really increases the challenge for the project manager.
When you have complex interactions between people or other variables on a project it becomes very difficult to plot a straight line path towards outcomes. One solution is to use a programme approach, “a framework that expects the outcomes to be created in iterative tranches or chunks of activity”. But small changes in behaviour from one stakeholder can have a large effect on the overall project. And that is before there are political, often hidden, agendas; factions; conspiracies; unexpressed requirements and/or emergent changes in context.

Solutions to social problems need to be explored creatively, recognising inherent subjectivity, not just worked out technically or objectively says, Ruth. If you’d like to explore project management and social system ideas further, the APM Systems Thinking SIG is a great place to start.

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