A systemic perspective of a project can be described quite easily using a systems diagram.
Most projects are not closed systems. They interact with their environment as an open system. Data and signals flow continuously in and out of a project and constantly affect the stakeholders' decisions and actions related to achieving specific goals and objectives.
A project also consists of many objects and relationships. Some objects include stakeholders such as customers, project managers, senior management, team members , steering committee, suppliers, vendors , contractors, subject matter experts, and consultants . Other objects include tools, techniques, and supplies such as personal computers, mathematical models, and materials, respectively. All the objects have attributes as well. For example, attributes for people include emotions, strengths, weaknesses, roles, and responsibilities. Still other objects are the processes employed on a project, e.g., change management, configuration management, risk management, planning, status assessment, and resource allocation.
Relationships exist among objects. Some relationships are vertical, e.g., with senior management or a steering committee; others are horizontal, e.g., with team members. Some relationships are external, e.g., with customers and other project managers, while others are internal, e.g., with team members and immediate management. Some relationships are formal, e.g., reporting to senior management; others are informal, e.g., dealing with people in the informal network of a corporation to achieve the goals of a project.
Like all systems, a project faces many constraints, which can include applying a specific methodology; restricting scope; applying a certain technical technique; following a certain type of life cycle, e.g., waterfall or spiral; achieving dictated milestone dates; completing a project within a specific budget; and following policies and procedures. These constraints are formal ones. There are informal constraints that also affect a project, e.g., norms, history of managing projects, politics, risk acceptance or avoidance , and managerial style.
A project has data and signals flowing throughout, internally and externally. These inputs and outputs may include presentations, reviews, minutes, reports , forms, project charter, project announcement, schedules, estimates, contingency plans, and work breakdown structures. Some information can initiate transactional and transformative behavior within a project. Transactional behavior might include transferring data from one stakeholder to another. Transformative behavior might include converting data into information, such as collecting status and generating meaningful reports for a steering committee.
A project can operate in equilibrium when responding to data and signals that arrive from its environment and are generated internally by its elements. Sometimes, data and signals from an environment can push a project into disequilibrium. An example might be when a key team member with very specialized skills decides to depart.
Disequilibrium on a project is often detected via indicators. Indicators include exceeded budget, high defect rate, sliding schedule, greater frequency of negative conflict, and the presence of obstacles and problems.
Of course, a project can adapt to events that shake it into disequilibrium. Decisions and actions related to replanning, corrective actions, and new tools and techniques can all help a project to adapt.
Like all systems, a project is affected and effected by structures. Two common structures are the matrix and projectized types of projects. However, these structures are related more to an external environment. Another way to configure a project is to arrange objects, such as people, either hierarchically or relationally. A hierarchical configuration represents a command and control orientation towards managing a project. The relational configuration represents a more stewardship approach towards managing projects. The integral approach represents a more participative decision-making approach, combining both hierarchical and relational approaches.
Using a systemic perspective, project managers can make changes more easily because they can focus on the "big picture," that is, how all the elements of a project interact. They can make decisions and take actions that leverage the affects and effects on performance. For example, they can identify critical success factors to improve performance of tasks on the critical path , e.g., add people on a task, change working relationships among team members, or increase learning opportunities.
The effect of such changes can be determinable quite easily by reviewing the common indicators associated with project performance, e.g., comparing planned and actual performance, tracking changes to cost performance indices, schedule performance indices, and defect rates. The key point is to realize the importance of tracking the effect of changes via feedback.