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We know both project management and systems, but what does it actually mean to bring the two together and what tools are available to manage projects systemically?

Before I go into these questions, I would like to briefly admit that in my projects, the technical level and the process level were definitely in the foreground at the beginning of my career. Particularly in the rather “shirt-sleeved” logistics industry was at these times only little room for the consideration of “soft facts”.

Only in the course of the steadily increasing complexity and dynamics of projects – especially in extensive transformation initiatives – social and interpersonal levels have been given greater consideration. And this is exactly what the systemic approach is all about.

In systemic project management, the methods of classic project management get enriched with tools of system diagnosis and systemic intervention in order to take into account all relevant levels in project management.

This is done by answering the following questions, among others:

  • Which factors can promote, hinder or even cause the project to fail?
  • What possibilities are there to increase acceptance for the project in the social environment and among the project participants to strengthen positive factors?
  • What are the possible effects of planned measures?

Systemic project management offers a high degree of flexibility and a more comprehensive view to handle all types of projects. In particular, it is suitable for projects that aim at extensive changes in the company.

But what does all this mean for the project manager? He/she may need to expand the toolbox and build up know-how for topics such as:

  • Active stakeholder management
  • Dealing with and mastering power and power resources
  • Recognizing, drawing and independently setting boundaries
  • Creating a common framework (“project vision”)
  • Introduction and design of social rules
  • Early detection and resolution of conflicts

In the following, three exemplary tools are described, which can be used in different phases of the project. All these tools can also be applied in online sessions (using e.g. MS TEAMS) by slightly amending the used instruments. Here though the “conventional way” is shown:

Team Check *

This method creates the platform for a transparent and trustful exchange of team members about their expectations, thoughts and concerns towards the project. Through a change of perspective, the project manager receives valuable information about how his team is currently “ticking” and which measures, if any, need to be taken to keep the project on track.

It is recommended to use the Team Check not only at the start of the project, but regularly in all subsequent phases of the project.

The approach looks as follows:

The project manager prepares questions and visualizes them on flipcharts or whiteboards. Examples of questions for a kick-off could be:

  • What are your general thoughts about the project?
  • What hurdles do you see along the way?
  • What do you need for successful project work?

These questions can also be used in the further project phases (e.g. at the end of workshops), if necessary slightly modified. Possibly supplemented by the question of what a certain measure has brought.

It is important that all team members get the opportunity to express their opinion and all contributions are treated confidentially. In addition, statements may not be commented on. Only questions of understanding are allowed. The contributions are captured by the project manager on a whiteboard or so in order to subsequently derive and implement appropriate measures with the involvement of the team.

The introduction of this feedback method is not particularly demanding from a technical point of view. The challenge lies more in the interpersonal area, because when it is used for the first time, many project members feel a certain unease about disclosing personal opinions and feelings openly. Here, the project manager is challenged to build and cultivate a climate of trust.


Paradoxical intervention *

… or “How can we reliably drive the project against the wall?”

This tool also involves a change of perspective. With the goal of finding solution ideas by reformulating the answers to the question into the opposite. The advantage of this approach is that by reversing the question, completely unexpected solution approaches are often found.

The use of this method is also recommended for getting the buy-in from stakeholders who are rather skeptical about the project, since their reservations become often relative. In addition, it frequently turns out at the intervention that the risks do not really lie in the project itself, but rather originate from own negative beliefs and personal fears.

This tool is used during the initialization of the project or in the context of the risk analysis.

The intervention takes about 45-60 minutes and is carried out in seven steps:

  1. In the brainstorming session, the answers to the question of what will definitely cause the project to fail are indicated on cards in keywords by each participant. Creative fantasizing and exaggeration should be expressly permitted here!
  2. Each participant presents his or her cards and places them onto the pinboard.
  3. Grouping of the cards by the moderator.
  4. Points are assigned by each participant for the three most relevant cards.
  5. Open feedback round on the result and joint review of the ranking. Adjustment if necessary.
  6. Brainstorming in the group (if necessary in subgroups) what each individual can do in his or her area of responsibility to transform the three defined risks into success factors.
  7. Creation of a joint action plan with derived measures, responsibilities and corresponding timelines.

This tool is suitable for projects with a high degree of uncertainty, such as transformations and/or where the opinions of the initiators of the project differ widely with regard to risks and obstacles.


Newspaper article *

In this intervention, the team creates a fictitious newspaper article about the project assuming that it has already been successfully completed. This visualization work strengthens team spirit, increases motivation in the team, and manifests a shared sense of purpose.

The exercise can already be carried out during the initialization phase to create a common vision. At the latest, however, directly after the planning phase has been completed.

In a 1–2-hours session (depending on the number of subprojects and participants), working groups of no more than five participants are formed to proceed as follows:

  1. Introduction of the intervention by the moderator. Here, it should also be jointly considered in which newspaper/magazine the article could be published.
  2. Joint formulation of the headline by the respective working group.
  3. Drafting of individual publication sentences by each participant and writing them on cards/notes. The participants should also be encouraged to exaggerate a little.
  4. Cutting out matching pictures from various magazines, which are made available to each working group beforehand.
  5. Use of a pin board, to which the formulated sentences including pictures are attached by each participant.
  6. Finalization of the article in the group by putting the individual sentences in a logical order and looking at the result together.
  7. Presentation of the group results to the other teams if multiple teams got formed.
  8. Recording any questions/comments on a flipchart.
  9. Joint reflection steered by the moderator, e.g. starting with the question what the participants feel when viewing the generated articles.

A counterpart to the newspaper article is the exercise Lessons learned as a travelogue *, which can be done at the end of a project. In a similarly playful way, the project is presented here as an imaginary journey in which team members are allowed to put down on paper their associations with the project, including all the ups and downs they have experienced.

If you are keen to know how this intervention works in detail or curious to learn about other systemic tools, just get in touch with me. I would be happy to explain to you in detail. Should you also be interested in deploying me as your team coach for projects, please do not hesitate to contact me for a personal exchange.

* Source: „Systemische Werkzeuge für erfolgreiches Projektmanagement“ by Simone Gehr, Joanne Huang, Michael Boxheimer, Sonja Armatowski; Springer Gabler, 2018