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Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams
Themes and theories for working in virtual project teams

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4 Systems thinking

Working on projects and in teams gives rise to many complexities, some of which can be anticipated but others cannot. Problems can arise in any of the following: the work to achieve the project goals; the team itself; and the technology being used.

To help make solving problems manageable, techniques can be developed to break down problems or issues into smaller parts. Breaking a problem down into parts introduces a new step, that of bringing together the possible solutions to the individual sub-problems into a solution for the original, complex problem. However, a too simplistic classification can lead to a narrow view of an issue. When over simplified, attempts to solve a problem may be unsuccessful because there are unexpected effects which arise because the intended solution does not take account of the whole problem. Solving real world problems requires the ability to look at the whole of a situation, but also to identify what can change – so it needs a combination of high level thinking and detailed thinking. Systems thinking is an approach which provides some structure to thinking about real world problems.

Unexpected side effects can arise when the impact of one decision or solution has not been fully considered for other parts of the situation. For example, when introducing a new technology or procedure it is essential to consider people issues as well as technical issues.


An example within the OU is the introduction of the electronic tutor-marked assignment (eTMA) system which replaced an earlier paper system. To support students who might have technical difficulties in submitting their TMAs an email address was given for the Assignment Handling Office. Students also started to use this address, instead of contacting their regional office, if they had not received their marked TMAs or if they had questions about the mark. Whilst the distinction between the roles of the Assignment Handling Office and the Regional Offices was clear to those who published the email address this was not clear to students. It took time to determine which regional office each student’s enquiry should be redirected to. The unfortunate effect was a further delay for students who already felt delayed by slow marking of their TMA or confused by the marks. The problem was resolved by providing more detailed information to students of where different types of enquiries should be directed and providing this information in more places.

Western styles of education and training have channelled people into thinking in certain ways, which can be limiting when dealing with complex problems and especially those which combine people and technology. A paradigm that became increasingly popular in the latter half of the twentieth century to address some of these limitations was that of systems thinking. Something that is systemic is that which affects the whole body or organism so that systems thinking is a holistic approach for looking at problems. Peter Checkland is a key author in this subject. His book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice published in 1993 and reprinted several times, is a useful text if you wish to explore these ideas further. The most recent edition, 1999, includes both a 30-year retrospective of Soft Systems Methodology and a glossary (Checkland, 1999).

Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary approach which, while using existing ways of thinking, also utilises new tools and techniques, such as the use of diagramming techniques, to better understand the problem. It recognises that within a system there is interconnectedness and that parts of a system affect other parts; looking at one part in isolation may ignore effects on other parts. However, looking at the whole system can identify feedback loops and so develop understanding of what affects changes in one part of the system can have on another part. A major benefit of developing a systems thinking approach is that it can be applied in many ways, so it can be used for example to:

  • Analyse a problem posed by a client, such as:
    • investigate issues or solutions within an organisation as part of choosing the right changes/projects to undertake, whether they are systematically desirable or culturally feasible
    • develop a cycle of learning within an organisation to make changes and then re-analyse the situation to determine an end to change or to make further changes
    • determine how to implement a change.
  • Facilitate the working of a team, such as:
    • help an individual to widen their understanding of a problem or of other people’s perspectives
    • encourage debate amongst would-be improvers
    • build understanding within the team of the problem area
    • develop cohesion in an interdisciplinary team prior to project initiation.
  • Engaging in systems thinking is a way of imposing some order on the real world whilst facilitating creative thinking. This is to help understanding of either or both of the following:
    • how things are organised, in order to understand how they operate
    • how they need to be organised, in order to control them.

Systems thinking is not an exact science. The examination of a real world problem could be approached in several different ways each of which may be helpful in identifying possible solutions. To some extent the detailed description of a particular system is what we define it to be, rather than something that necessarily exists in its own right. Before taking these ideas further it is important to note that the word system is used in many different ways, so first a definition of system is needed for systems thinking.

The glossary in Checkland (1999) states that a system is:

A model of a whole entity; when applied to human activity, the model is characterised fundamentally in terms of hierarchical structure, emergent properties, communication, and control. An observer may choose to relate this model to real-world activity. When applied to natural or man-made entities, the crucial characteristic is the emergent properties of the whole.

In other words, the system has purpose and it acts as a whole entity. That is, it exhibits properties which are meaningful only when attributed to the whole. What is inside and what is outside the system can be distinguished. The components, or elements, of the system may operate as systems in their own right, but they are a subsystem of the whole system being considered. Within the whole system there is structure and communication between its subsystems and with its environment. A system is characterised by having emergent properties which can arise from the system as a whole or from the interaction of subsystems within it. The system as a whole has emergent behaviour, that is, things can happen which are not immediately predictable and they arise out of the interactions of its subsystems with each other and of the whole system with its environment.