Many project management professionals will describe themselves as a “project leader”. However, in the contemporary working environment, this is often an inaccurate definition of the scope of their role. In fact, their complex function is closer to that of a systems engineer, making them more like “systems leaders” than project leaders.
Modern systems leaders have a more far-reaching role than a project leader; this is because often, a project leader won’t have a comprehensive vision of the project in regard to the complete lifecycle of the product and other associated business functions. In contrast, a systems leader has a wider view, which makes the role effectively a synthesis of a project leader, product manager, and a systems engineer. Below, we define these distinct functions and introduce the concept of the modern systems leader.
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The product cycle vs. the project cycle vs. the system cycle
As introduced, a systems leader has a broad overview of the lifecycle of both products and projects. Thus, before defining roles, it is useful to outline how the product cycle differs from the project cycle, and subsequently, the definition of the system cycle.
The product cycle
Every product has a lifecycle; rather like a human being, it will go through different life stages leading to its decline. Conventionally, the product lifecycle is broken down into four phases: introduction, growth, maturity and decline. These concepts are used by management to allocate marketing budgets, create pricing strategies, launch redesigns or move into new markets.
The project cycle
In contrast, the project cycle is a little more abstract; the number of sequences a project will go through depending on its goals, nature and application. However, although projects by their very nature are unique and unpredictable, their standard life cycle consists of four phases: initiation, planning, execution, and termination. This sequential understanding of a project lifecycle helps management plan staffing, allocate costs, and better compare the successes and failures of previous projects.
The systems cycle
The systems cycle, however, is an intricate combination of the two, acknowledging that both projects and products need to be constantly re-evaluated through their execution. This covers everything from logistics, team coordination, testing and evaluation, risk management, optimization and other disciplines necessary for the design, implementation, and ultimately, the decommissioning of complex projects in fields such as software design, mechanical engineering, or architecture.
A good way to define the systems cycle is to compare it to a basic manufacturing system; whereas manufacturing merely aims to repetitively produce the highest quality product for the lowest cost, the systems cycle are more relevant to complex processes. For instance, in fields like robotics, where multiple teams conceptualise and develop components, the possibility of friction grows. Thus, to ensure multiple overlapping projects align, leaders need to incorporate engineering systems, data analysis and team management. Traditionally, these processes are designed by systems engineers.
Distinguishing the project leader, product manager, and systems leader
Now we have defined their spheres of responsibility, we can break down the differing roles of a project leader, the product manager, and a system engineer. Ultimately, from these definitions, we can arrive at the more complex, contemporary role of a systems leader.
What is a product manager?
Product managers are responsible for ensuring the success of a product and leading the team that’s responsible for its development and improvement. They’ll outline the roadmap of a product’s life cycle, considering competitive conditions, marketing, forecasting, and laying out a product vision based on consumer demands. They also play an important cross-functional leadership role, liaising between R&D, marketing, sales and support.
What is a project leader?
As implied by the definition of the project cycle, the project leader has a focus on personnel. The project cycle will indicate a project’s staffing requirement and cost, and subsequently, the project leader will be responsible for hiring team members based on their skills. From here, they’ll set a vision and motivate the team, while acting as a key liaison between leadership and the project team.
What is a systems engineer?
A systems engineer is a multidisciplinary role that ensures that the demands of a product or project are translated into efficient and effective processes. They’ll collaborate with players across the organisation to ensure projects and components are fully aligned. In short, a systems engineer will monitor the performance of various systems and operations to ensure complex products function and business objectives are met.
Project leader and systems leader: A complex synthesis of roles
As technology plays an increasingly important role across every sector, job descriptions need to account for complexity. Thus, professionals that would have previously identified as a project leader are becoming more akin to systems engineers, with a stake in everything from design and development to validation and operation, risk assessment, performance, testing, scheduling, and costing. However, in an agile environment, the human factor associated with the project leader carries significant weight – thus creating the contemporary ‘systems leader’.
After all, as a project leader, the scope of your work is limited; however, with an open mind that reaches beyond the scope of the project and through the lifecycle of the product and broader system – more like a systems engineer – you can cultivate an environment that promotes continuous analysis, refinement and operational improvement.