Building on “soft systems for soft projects” : project management lessons learned

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This thesis explores lessons emerging from a multi-disciplinary affiliation of practitionerresearchers endeavouring to apply soft systems thinking to project management practice between 1998 and 2006 in New South Wales (NSW) public sector agencies. The research began with award of an Australian Research Council grant to the Project Management Research Program at the University of Technology, Sydney and the NSW Police Service. Titled “Soft Systems for Soft Projects”, the award application had been made with reference to the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) developed by Professor Peter Checkland and colleagues. Hard project management approaches were proving inadequate for dealing with the complex and shifting project environments being encountered in NSW public sector agencies. “Soft Systems for Soft Projects” was a multi-faceted and multi-level inquiry that delivered practical results. Affiliation members carried learning from this experience into other public sector change management initiatives and wider project management research and practice networks. The inquiry reported in this thesis was initially mapped out while the author was managing a NSW public sector agency’s response to an across-government ecommerce initiative. The aim of the inquiry was to look back on the affiliation’s attempts to reconcile hard and soft perspectives, as represented by project management and SSM respectively, while supporting development of an organisational project management capability through implementing a Project Management Information System (PMIS). It was framed within a modified model of the process of inquiry which Mode 2 use of SSM facilitates (Checkland and Holwell, 1998b, p. 170) and particularly focused on the affiliation’s engagements with Checkland and Holwell’s (1998, p. 106) “processes for organization meanings” (POM) model. The research material is drawn from the affiliation’s published outputs, the author’s personal documentation of emerging project management practice, public sector practice guides and documents about the contextual discourses that were shaping the scope of project management action at the agency level. These are “read” according to a model developed for exploring the relationship between the documents according to level of public exposure and close versus long range interest. In a novel approach, the POM model is used as a sense-making framework for appreciating the dynamic relationships between the agency projects / programs, internal organisational processes and the external shaping discourses as documented in this material.
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