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Systems thinking: taming complexity in project management

Jim Sheffield (Senior Lecturer at Victoria Management School, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand)
Shankar Sankaran (Associate Professor in the School of the Built Environment, University of Technology, Sydney, Ultimo, Australia)
Tim Haslett (Visiting Lecturer in the School of the Built Environment, University of Technology, Sydney, Ultimo, Australia)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 11 May 2012




This paper seeks to address complexity in project management via an innovative course that focuses on systems thinking.


Intuitions about systems thinking evident in everyday language are developed and applied to phases of the system development life cycle.


Complexity in project management may be tamed by systems thinking. Surprisingly, project managers do not seem to use simple systems thinking tools even though these provide unique benefits in framing and solving problems that arise from multiple perspectives and relationships.

Research limitations/implications

The findings are broadly conceptual. They introduce only some elements of a tertiary curriculum developed by the authors and certified by a major project management practitioner group.

Practical implications

The findings are of value to educators, practitioners and researchers who seek a practical approach to integrating complexity theory into modern project management practices.

Social implications

An individual's educational choices – and institutional policies – are now caught up in a complex dance of cause and effect that is difficult to understand. This research article investigates one educational response, which is to provide practical guidance for coordinated goal‐directed activities (including policies, procedures and projects) in an increasingly interconnected and uncertain world.


The approach of addressing complexity via a project management course certified by the Project Management Institute (PMI) is innovative, perhaps unique.



Sheffield, J., Sankaran, S. and Haslett, T. (2012), "Systems thinking: taming complexity in project management", On the Horizon, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 126-136.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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