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.
At Synergy, the annual UK PMI project management event in London which was held earlier this month, Mark Langley, PMI President and CEO, spoke about what he sees as the future development of the project management role.
He started by setting the scene for the evolution of projects in the workplace: 88% of organisations think that strategy implementation is important and yet only 62% of projects meet their original business goals. This is 10% less than 5 years ago so businesses are seeing less success when it comes to implementing strategy.
“Value for money, doing more with less – that’s what organisations are dealing with,” he said, “but it is also about strategy.” Working with organisational leaders is an area where PMI are very active as they try to push the agenda that strategic delivery is about projects, programmes and portfolios, which is a link that many businesses seem to have missed.
The challenge, he said, was that when you look round the boardroom table there isn’t anyone accountable for strategy implementation. It’s usually dispersed. “They don’t connect strategy with projects and programmes and too often connect it with something tactical.”
Why don’t executives get it?
“Language influences behaviour,” Mark said. “We define projects in technical terms – budget, scope, performance indices. This sounds great but to the executive – they don’t understand anything you just said.” The board, he explained, talks a different language. “We have to change that language when we go up to organisational leaders when they’re deciding what to invest in project and programme management.”
If we don’t invest in projects and make ourselves understood, we put more resources at risk. A high performing organisation (in project management terms) risks 14 times less money than other organisations, simply through being better at implementing strategic and tactical projects.
So where is project management going?
Mark believes that there will be a role of Project Executive at some point, although I imagine some companies have this now. It will be a board level position responsible for strategy implementation through projects and programmes. The problem is that we don’t have the people with the right skills to fill these roles.
“Technical skills are no longer enough,” he said. “They are the easy to teach but hard to find – it’s a career path issue; a university issue. People don’t come out of university with the technical project management skills that are necessary.”
So, we have two issues: a lack of pre-trained project managers with technical skills and a lack of people who could step up and take board level roles as project executives. Businesses, Mark said, do realise that they need to invest in project management. They recognise that they’re developing project leaders but they don’t recognise that they’re developing business leaders, he explained. The competences you need to be a good project leader are the same as those for being a good C-suite executive in any position: financial acumen, leadership, communication skills and so on.
Despite these challenges, Mark was clear that where project management should be going is to the boardroom. “Strategy development and strategy implementation are part of the same whole and that’s what organisations are starting to realise,” he said. Businesses are moving from having project managers to project leaders and eventually to project executives. Project professionals are moving out of projects into business areas and executive positions.
I think this shift is already starting to happen – it will be interesting to see how far we get in 10 years and whether the statistics for the importance of strategy implementation remain high, only to be matched by an organisation’s ability to deliver to that strategy.
Book review: Turn The Ship Around
Turn the Ship Around: How to Create Leadership at Every Level is a leadership book by David Marquet. It’s the story of how he commanded a U.S. nuclear submarine and took it from one of the poor performers to one of the top performers in the fleet. Each chapter includes a story from below deck and also the leadership lesson that non-naval managers can take from this.
"Leadership,” writes Stephen Covey in the Foreword, “is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves."
In the naval academy, Marquet learned that leadership is about controlling people. This is the standard ‘leader-follower’ model. What Marquet realised is that this model relies on the leader to be there all the time, setting the direction unfailingly. When the leader leaves (or goes to sleep when off-shift), the followers don’t have that direction any more.
"People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers,” he writes. While that doesn't matter much for many things like sports teams, it does for nuclear submarine. He says that we are taught that empowerment is the answer. "While the message is 'empowerment', the method – it takes me to empower you –fundamentally disempowers employees." Fair point.
On a project, leadership is important. You don’t have to be there 24/7 leading your project team, but you should be concerned about what happens when you are on holiday or out of the office. Can they operate the ship without you? Marquet set about to ensure that everyone could operate without him if necessary, and calls this the ‘leader-leader’ model. It’s also appropriate for keeping a team performing at high levels even after the person at the top is replaced, so it’s a longer term strategy than ‘leader-follower’, and it encourages leaders to be responsible for the performance of their unit long term, even after they have gone.
The book explains how Marquet got his sub to this level. One of the things I took from this book that is particularly appropriate to project environments is delegating down.
"Don't move information to authority, move authority to the information," Marquet writes. He gives the example of getting leave approved on the sub. The old process had multiple steps, with the person at the top of the chain having little understanding of the impact of that person being away.
Instead, Marquet made the department chiefs responsible for signing leave forms. This eliminated multiple steps in the chain of command, but also cemented their responsibility for having them manage the watch schedule and training schedule.
The three name rule
Another example of encouraging behaviour change comes in the example of the three name rule. Marquet wanted his staff to be polite and interested when visitors came onboard, as they frequently seemed to do.
"When you're trying to change employees' behaviours, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behaviour or change your behaviour and hope this leads to new thinking," he writes. They chose the latter, through implementing the three name rule.
The idea was that every time a crew member saw a visitor on board they would address the visitor by name, give their name and give the boat name. So it would sound something like this: “Good morning, Commodore Smith. I’m Petty Officer Jones. Welcome aboard the Sante Fe.”
I’m not suggesting that you adopt this by rote for your project, every time someone comes into your project office. But you could do something similar, by ensuring that everyone on the team knows what is expected of them when new team members join, or when subject matter experts are brought on to the team for a short while.
Control,competence and clarity
Control, competence and clarity are the three things Marquet picks out as essential for organisational excellence. Control can be done in a number of ways, and on a project strong governance principles fall in here. Competence ensures that your team has the skills to effectively carry out their roles. And clarity means they understand why they are doing it and how their part of the project contributes to the whole.
I found this a very enlightening book. It is easy to read with gripping stories that morph into leadership lessons. I really enjoyed it, and found it easy to relate to projects, even though it is not a book about project management. Leadership is something we all need to work at, however good we think we are. As Stephen Covey says in the Foreword: “Remember, leadership is a choice, not a position."