Systems thinking is a well organised approach of understanding the dynamic relationship between components of a system, so that we can make better choices and avoid unintentional consequences. It’s a conceptual framework for problem-solving which understands and considers the problems in their entirety (Hall, 1999 and Senge 1990). In other words, it can be defined as a view which looks at the ‘system as a whole’ first with its fit and relationship to external environment being a primary concern as compared to the constituent elements that make up the system (Morgan, 2005). It can be used to understand how systems work and how individuals can deal with them, while looking for patterns of interaction and underlying structures which shapes the systems behaviour.


A number of methods, tools and principles cover the concept of systems thinking with a common goal of understanding relationships within the system, as systems thinking works on the hypothesis that there are certain evolving properties of systems that do not exist when systems are disintegrated into individual parts. For example consider a driver who is constantly hitting red lights on the road. If the driver is only noticing one part of the system i.e. red lights, then he will simply decide to speed up to in-order to make the next light before it turns to red. But, if he considers other parts of the system i.e. his car, condition of the road, driving style and the distance between two lights, he will notice that every time he tries to speedup to make a light, it changes to red. His speed is tripping the lights to force him to drive slower. So if he is observing this pattern, he can simply reduce his speed to drive thorough all green lights.


Adopting a view of system thinking can complement conventional styles of research in projects in certain ways:

  • It suggests different levels of analysis and synthesis for different kinds of problems, ranging from the simple activity levels to the more complex hierarchical levels.
  • Systems thinking complements reductionism (the principle that everything can be reduced to its individual parts), analytical analysis (breaking down a system to its smallest components), cause and effect thinking (environment-independent, linear but without feedback loops, closed and defined boundaries), complete determinism (illusion of control) with complexity (a sub-system of larger network), blended structure (explaining the whole system in terms of functions and inter-relationship between parts), circular contributing effects (explaining external environmental influences, performance and feedback) and belief in uncertainty which leads to probabilistic thinking (Schiuma, 2012).
  • It provides a conceptual framework which utilizes different theories, tools and techniques like the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), which helps in constructing a holistic, reliant perspective and practise aimed at disclosing the relationships characterizing a system (Joham et al., 2009 and Pourdehnad, 2007).


Although adoption of systems thinking/view is beneficial in some aspects while executing consulting projects, there are still certain problems which are associated with this approach. Some of them are as follow:

  • Concept of systems thinking totally ignores or much worse destroys the most important aspects of human systems, for e.g. the interconnections or inter-relationships amongst and between the constituent sub-systems (Morgan, 2005). The project and its sub-tasks are totally ignored. Reductionism is no longer appropriate for dynamic projects which comprises of mostly human activities. It encourages fragmentation and isolation of the project which causes undue concern with the individual project activities or sub-systems.
  • Reductionism can’t be implemented in every project. It tries to deal with the issues of the project one at a time, which leads to the problem of backing up which make things much worse. Also it is not helpful in dealing with multiple or delayed causality, as it is leading us to the simplistic way of thinking where individuals instead of focusing on the core problem focus on ‘either-or’ choices and blame mentality (Morgan, 2005).
  • The over-reliance on reductionism will create an imaginary environment in which individuals think that prediction and control are the usable approaches to deal with complex projects. Endless varieties of tools and frameworks would be applied to ensure project success and when all such things fail they will try to explain the causes of system failure using the reductionist explanations of personal failure, resistance to change etc. So, the cycle goes on repeating itself and people, organisations get trapped into fixes which are doomed to fail.

In conclusion, adopting a systems view can contribute in planning and controlling the complexity and uncertainty by embedding flexibility in consulting activities. When implemented and aligned properly, systems view can alleviate the flaws present in the existing frameworks to produce a more general framework which includes both prescriptive and descriptive elements (Montano et. al, 2001). Also, it facilitates the links between project management initiatives and the strategic goals and objectives of an organisation helping in maintain a clear vision of what is being done and why it is being done (Ackoff and Emery, 1972).

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