3 Types of Complexity
At PMI’s Synergy conference at the end of last year, Stephen Carver gave a well-received presentation which included some information about the different types of complexity, as perceived by the brains at Cranfield.
He talked about what success looks like on projects and said that the level of complexity faced is part of whether a project is deemed to be a success or not. The 3 types of complexity he identified are:
Let’s look at each of those in turn.
This is the ‘easiest’ level of complexity and it involves the scale of the work on the project. A project is structurally complex when it has many stakeholders, workstreams or other elements. There is a lot for the project manager to manage and control, with many variables.
This is where the project is changing around you, for example increases to the price of steel in a construction project or stakeholders who were not identified at the outset suddenly needing to be included. It encompasses projects where there are a number of unforeseen issues or where the situation is unknowable, for example where there is a great deal of novelty perhaps in the technical set up or the way the commercials are being managed.
This is where the project suffers from hidden agendas and lots of politics. There is little transparency and at the worst end of the scale maybe even sabotage. There are conflicting priorities and resistance. Cultural IQ becomes really important for the project manager along with being able to adequately manage the people involved and creating a shared understanding of objectives and the project’s vision in order to align agendas effectively.
Stephen said that most training courses cover dealing with structural complexity but in a survey of 246 project managers who were asked which of these 3 areas they found most challenging, socio-political complexity came out on top.
Which is hardly a surprise.
“Projects,” he said, “are deeply emotional things.” Whether the Millennium Dome, for example, was seen as a success or failure is down to your point of view and the passage of time: rebadged as the O2, it’s now a very successful arena and venue. The Sydney Opera House, Concord and Terminal 5 at Heathrow were other examples he gave of projects where the definition of success was difficult to pin down and would mean different things to different people.
“If you don’t do anything, you won’t make any mistakes,” he added. “We do a lot so we are bound to make mistakes.” Unfortunately, on complex projects these mistakes tend to be in the socio-political arena and they can be very hard to undo. Not setting up proper workstream reporting, for example, might give you a structural problem at the start of your project but it’s easy enough to address that sort of complexity and put it right. Dealing with damaged egos or senior stakeholders who each think the project is going to address their own pet issue is a far harder situation to deal with.
He didn’t give any pointers as far as I can remember about being able to deal with socio-political complexity, although I imagine that a 45 minute presentation about project success was never going to have much time to touch on what project managers can do differently (better) in order to address these challenges.
What tips do you have for managing projects with this type of complexity? Is it just good stakeholder management or are there other things that you can do to deal with it successfully? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Are project forecasters “fools or liars”?
“The majority of forecasters are fools or liars,” says Professor Bent Flyvbjerg from the BT Centre for Major Programme Management, at the Sa?d Business School, University of Oxford, in a new paper on inaccurate estimates for major projects.
The paper, published in the International Journal of Project Management, sees Professor Flyvbjerg criticising the way that forecasts for projects are put together. He says they are inaccurate and provide poor material from which to make decisions about cost and benefits.
“Estimates are commonly poor predictors of the actual value and viability of projects, and cannot be trusted as the basis for informed decision-making,” he says. “These forecasts frequently misinform decision makers on projects instead of informing them. Some of the inaccuracy comes from genuine forecasting mistakes arising from over-optimism, but some estimates are deliberately misleading, designed to secure financial or political support for a project.”
You probably know of examples of where a project manager has padded estimates for one reason or another, by Prof. Flyvberg is pretty scathing about forecasting methods and the people who use them.
“Many forecasts are garbage and can be shown to be worse than garbage,” he is quoted as saying in a press release from the university. “These reports give the client, investors and others the impression that they are being informed about future demand, or the costs involved in a major project, when they are being misinformed. Instead of reducing risk, reports like this increase risk by systematically misleading decision-makers and investors about the real risks involved.”
What’s the answer?
Prof. Flyvbjerg says that the answer is for everyone to be a bit better at not putting up with this (I paraphrase). For example, he recommends that clients should ask for their money back when they receive reports which later prove to be significantly inaccurate and misleading. He even goes as far as saying that they could demand compensation (some contracts must have a clause for this in anyway). His most radical idea is that in some cases criminal action would be justified. “Merely firing the forecaster may be letting them off too easily,” he says. “Some forecasts are so grossly misrepresented and have such dire consequences that we need to consider suing them for the losses incurred as a result. In a few cases where forecasters foreseeably produce deceptive forecasts, criminal penalties may be warranted.”
Personally, I can’t see many project managers ending up in court because of poor scheduling, but as this has come from the Centre for Major Programme Management, Prof. Flyvbjerg is really talking about complex, mega projects.
When we say ‘everyone’, Prof. Flyvberg includes the professional bodies in that too. He calls on them to use their codes of ethics to penalise and possibly exclude members who produce unethical forecasts. “This needs to be debated openly within the relevant professional organisations,” he says. “Malpractice in project management should be taken as seriously as malpractice in other professions like medicine and law.” How many project managers genuinely produce unethical forecasts and how many are just incompetent? I think it would be hard to decide if someone was acting in good faith and to the best of their abilities or whether they were deliberately altering estimates for political gain.
A better way of forecasting
As you would hope from someone who is so outspoken about this, Prof. Flyvberg has all the answers. His answer is to turn to his own work and in this IJPM paper he sets out the case for quality control and due diligence to be applied to the evaluation of front-end forecasts. Unfortunately, I think his answer only works for massive projects and not for the type of forecasting and estimating most project managers do on their projects.
“Recent research has developed the concepts, tools and guidance on incentives that could help curb both delusional and deceptive forecasts,” he says. “Whether forecasters are unwittingly or deliberately under-estimating the costs, completion times, and risks of projects, and over-estimating their benefits, we need to have a systematic basis for evaluating their findings in order to make informed investment decisions. Given the high cost of major infrastructure projects, the irreversibility of decisions, and the limited availability of resources, this is clearly critical for both public sector and private sector projects. Significantly more accurate forecasts can be produced by looking at the evidence available from previous similar projects which have been already completed – what I call, taking an ‘outside view’. This seems so simple, but in practice it is transformative and leads to much more accurate forecasting.”
In other words, take large data sets or statistically relevant data for projects in your sector, apply due diligence, estimate from the basis of past experience and critically evaluate the forecasts. You’ve spotted it – the big downside to this estimating approach is that you need large, validated data sets to draw benchmark data from previous, relevant, projects. If your PMO has been up and running for years and has gathered all this, and you never do any projects which innovate or deliver something new in a way you haven’t done before, then you could make use of this technique.
If you don’t have all that data to hand, then this method of forecasting will not scale from mega projects and programmes to the humble projects that you and I work on. While using historical data is great and we should all look to the past to better predict the future, we would be wrong to expect this model to work for all projects.
The budget challenge for PMOs
ESI International, a large project management training company, released the findings of its latest annual benchmarking survey this month. “The State of the Project Management Office: On the Road to the Next Generation” survey investigates the current role of the Project/Programme Management Office (PMO), its development to full-blown maturity and value for the overall business.
Based on responses from over 3,000 respondents in more than 17 industries on six continents, the research revealed that budgets have been the biggest challenge for PMOs over the last year.
The survey respondents also said that in order to measure success, they relied on the standard definitions of the triple constraint: namely on time, to-budget project delivery. This is one way of defining success, and perhaps one of the easiest to measure but not the most effective (or modern) way of thinking about project success results. Maybe that’s why around 55% of respondents said that the value of their PMO was questioned by key stakeholders.
Why might budget constraints be a top problem?
Here are some reasons why budgets make the top of the list for PMO challenges:
Like all departments, PMOs are having to come up with new ways to do more with less. Maybe this is just a symptom that all departments are suffering from and is not a specific research finding related to PMOs.
Is budget the top challenge for your PMO in 2012? If not, what is?
Show me the money: the 2012 Arras People Project Management Benchmark Report
The 2012 Arras People Project Management Benchmark Report is out - the 7th annual study of the project management industry that the company has produced. The company surveyed over 2000 project professionals, mostly UK based. This year, there were some interesting results reported around budgets and salaries.
What's your budget?
Nearly a third of project managers are responsible for budgets between £1m and £5m, which is the category that had the highest response rate. Programme managers manage the larger budgets, with 37% managing between £1m and £5m and 29% having a budget of over £5m.
Contractors have responsibility for larger budgets than employed project managers, which surprised me. They also typically have more staff working for them - again, I found this surprising. It shows that contractors aren't just brought in to fill recruitment gaps but to take the lead on significant change initiatives with significant spans of control.
How much do you earn?
The survey looked at salary movements. 83% of respondents reported that their salary increased by less than inflation in 2011 - a virtual pay cut. Unsurprisingly, the public sector was the worst hit, since the pay freeze was announced. Over 60% of public sector workers reported that their salary hadn't changed, compared to under a third of private sector project workers. The average salaries were:
• Project manager: £43,762
• Programme Office and Portfolio managers: £57,560
• Programme manager: £58,788
• PPM Consultant: £67,237 (and 46% of them feel worse off than they did last year)
For mid-range salaried jobs, the public sector is the place to be. Many more employees earn in the £35k to £50k range than in the private sector. If you want to earn more than about £55k, move to the private sector - that's where the higher paid jobs are.
If you get a bonus at all, it's likely to be up to 8% of salary according to the survey. Only 2% of people receive over 25% of salary as a bonus, so if you fall into that category, consider yourself lucky.
Contractor day rates also took a dive, especially at the lower end of the pay scale. Where day rates were already low, it looks like hiring managers have squeezed them even further.
What's next for salaries in 2012?
The experts at Arras are expecting it to be another tough year for the public sector. 95% of public sector survey respondents are predicting no change or less than inflationary change in the coming 12 months.
Private sector workers are expected to fare better. Nearly two thirds of project professionals are expecting to get a rise this year. Arras is predicting that there won't be huge increases (for huge read over 5%) but that salaries will increase this year.
21% of contractors are predicting that their rates will decrease over the next year - not good for those already suffering the effects of rate declines in 2011.
So in summary, 2011 was tough and 2012 is likely to be a little bit better, but not much. However, project and programme work still remains well-paid and sought after, so it is still a good employment sector to be in.
How do you think salaries and bonuses will evolve in your country over the next year?
At the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin last month Terry Williams spoke about his research into early warning signs on complex projects. Last week I wrote about what causes problems on projects. One of the things his research team considered was the role that external reviews have to play in uncovering those problems.
External reviews at all points in the project are useful. These provide a sense of legitimacy; comfort that you are doing the right thing. However, they need to be well focused, with guidelines. And of course it is not enough just to do a review and create a list of issues: issues have to be acted on as well.
However in some cases it was the process of doing the review was the most useful. The interview forced the project team to defend what was happening and therefore helped them uncover what was indefensible.
Having to justify the decisions made the project team question them and this process was identified as a good tool for flagging where things were going wrong.
Barriers to identifying early warning signs
You may expect warning signs to be successfully identified and dealt with in an environment where gut feel is taken seriously and reviews are carried out. But it is not like that everywhere.
Terry also shared some of the barriers to identifying early warning signs in projects. Here are some:
I am not a big fan of organisational politics, and I often wish we could cut through the hidden agendas and just get things done. However, fast tracking projects through politics means you don't have time to assess early warning signs, Terry said.
What are the early warning signs?
As a result of their research the team was able to make lists of typical early warning signs by project stage. These are helpful guidelines for people doing project reviews - pointers for what to be looking for. The lists included:
During project set up
In early stages of project
During project execution stage
Do you do project reviews? If so, have you spotted any of these warning signs or any other signs that things might not be going to plan?