If Your Project Addresses the Wrong Problem, It Won’t Be Successful


By Mario H Trentim

Original Source: ProjectManagement.com


In my previous post, I emphasized the importance of engaging and involving stakeholders proactively in a learning process about project definition and planning. I highlighted soft systems methodology as a powerful problem-structuring method.

But how exactly can we incorporate problem-structuring methods into the project management practice? Are they really useful and feasible? Let me guide you through an example below, step by step, according to the Soft Systems Methodology.

Project: Build a New Power Plant

  1. Problem situation unstructured: Our energy supply isn’t meeting demand.
  2. Problem situation expressed: This expresses the area of concern through a rich picture containing both appropriate symbols for real-world activities and words.

Figure 1: Simplified rich picture for the project “Build Power Plant” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Root definition: The purpose of the project is not to build a new power plant; the end objective is to deliver enough energy to the client. The client expresses the most important human activity system (HAS) to be further studied. We could define more than one root definition to represent a different HAS. For each HAS, we have an analysis of the customer, actors, transformation, weltanschauung (comprehensive worldview), owner and environment (CATWOE).
  • Root definition: to ensure that the client has enough energy.
  • CATWOE Analysis

Customer: client

Actors: sponsor, project manager, team and contractors

Transformation: provide enough energy

Weltanschauung: energy fuels operations

Owner: client

Environment: client environment

  1. Conceptual models: We could develop many models in different levels to better understand the problem. Simplifying, I’ve created a conceptual model of how the client uses energy, based on the root definition stated before.

Figure 2: Conceptual model based on root definition “to ensure that the client has enough energy” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Comparison between conceptual models and the real world. This stage compares what we are now to what we want to be able to do. The conceptual model (or models) represents how things should work. The reality has to be changed in some way to improve the problem-situation.

Table 1: Comparison to reality (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Feasible desirable changes: The project manager and his or her team propose solutions (project scope). In stage 5, we compare the ideal conceptual model to reality, so we can propose feasible solutions and create action plans.
  2. Implement solutions: project execution.

Actually, the solution implementation might encompass all of the project life cycle. Stages 1 to 6 may happen prior to project initiation or in the beginning of the planning phase. Once we have the problem statement and the proposed solution aligned strategically to stakeholders’ expectations and needs, we can use our traditional project management knowledge, as compiled in the PMBOK® Guide, for example.

A successful project delivers solid benefits. That’s why we have to understand the problem before we start creating a solution. In other words, well-crafted plans and detailed scope definitions are useless if they do not address the real needs of stakeholders. Don’t you think?