Project Management

3 Ways To Simplify Complex Projects

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Categories: leadership

by Dave Wakeman

My mind has been so focused lately on the leadership failures we’ve seen during the pandemic that I often forget to think about ways that we can help our project teams move forward right now. That got me to thinking about something we often struggle within any situation: simplification. 

I imagine most of us feel like we’re managing teams of complex individuals working on complex projects, with answers and solutions that are also complex. If you catch me at the right time, I’ll tell you everything is complex. 

Over the years, one thing I’ve learned that adds value—for all my stakeholders—is the ability to take the complex and make it simple. 

Case in point: A friend of mine asked me about a branding project his organization was focused on. He asked if I could sprinkle some of the “Dave three-point simplification” on his marketing challenge. I joke, but the ability to simplify projects and decisions for our team members can help steer us towards success—if we do it well. 

Here are three points to keep in mind:

1. Focus on the essential.

When we’re working on something, we can go down the rabbit hole pretty quickly, running through all of the minor details, dead ends and roundabout ideas that don’t actually matter.

To be fair, most of us and our team members have a lot of knowledge, and we want to share our relevant experiences. But in many cases, we allow this abundance of knowledge to get in the way of just focusing on the key ideas or tasks. Instead, think through the essential details, actions or points that need to be made. And stick to those. 

2. Cut the lingo.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this: people using a crazy language of acronyms, shorthand and code that only makes sense to those within the field. Even if they’re confused, a lot of folks don’t want to speak up and say, “Hey, what does this jumble of alphabet soup and buzzwords mean?” 

To make sure we’re getting our points across, we have to step back and focus on using simple and clear language—even if it might seem too basic. When you’re talking and sharing instructions or feedback with a stakeholder, don’t assume they understand every definition, acronym or idea familiar to you. 

Take the time to define concepts, frame ideas and make sure the point you’re making is getting through—even if you sound like a first-year business student. 

3. Lean on visuals and metaphors. 

When we’re focusing on simplifying a topic, we need to consider the fact that everyone learns in a different way. Some folks like to learn by reading, others by listening or through imagery. And in most cases, learning is aided by actually doing something. So as you’re working on simplifying and coaching your team, don’t be afraid to use visuals or metaphors that draw distinctions or illustrate your point in a different way to help others better understand the information.

For me, simplification is a great tool. And even though I know I don’t always get it right, I’d still much rather be known for talking at too basic of a level than as an out-of-touch bore. 

How do you use simplification on your project teams? Let me know what you think in the comments below! 


Posted by David Wakeman on: August 11, 2020 03:01 PM | Permalink

Comments (18)

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Very interesting., thanks for sharing.

Wow... Point #1 is just so key... Focusing on the essential

Simplification also applies to the way one communicates. Cutting to the chase, or quit beating the bush, are ways to make ensure that the message is kept simple and clear.

In regards to point #3, mapping out is a fantastic simplifiying tool.

Identify and keep re-stating the driver for the project, and the top constraints. Why are we doing this project? And what are the brick walls we must not hit? Keep asking, "Why is that" until you get to laws of physics, laws of humans, laws of God, or something to do with money--something simple. The driver and constraints might change at first, but as we repeat them, is everybody settling on one driver and no more than three constraints? I learned this simplifying tool from Johanna Rothman.

Thanks for this good Article.

Thank you, always good to remind ourselves of these powerful techniques.

Simple and effective.
Thank you for sharing this!

Great tips and pieces of advice. I lean on point 3 a lot, everyone learns and consumes information differently, and in complex projects its so important to find a way to communicate ideas to many.

Dave, great article, I like to keep things simple too whether it's with meetings and writing emails.

Thanks for your article, its really great tips which would be helped in our content delivery

great article, and in my experience the complex project are simplified when the product owner is assigned exclusively to work directly with the team

Thank you for this great article.

Very important to simplify the vision, language, and model of the project. Most of the stakeholders will have limited knowledge of PMBOK, and even less knowledge of why these are best practices. Engaging at the stakeholder level is an art.

Point 2 - make communication simple. Very informative. Thanks for sharing

Hi David. Thanks for your article. One thing that has been working for me is using metaphors. Like most of us, my project team is cross-functional. I have IT, finance, operations, supply chain management and data scientists on the project team. That is a diverse set of skills, and each person is much more versed in their area than I am. I used the metaphor for tollgates in my latest project as checkpoints in a marathon. Even if people aren't runners, they still understand that simple language of the 5k mark being the first tollgate after planning. We are setting our pace and ensuring that we have everything ready to go for the rest of the race. Elegant simplicity is what I strive for. Ultimately, the team needs to be able to run the race acting as if I'm not even there. I think that is the ideal form of communication--explaining how each person's unique skill set can bring value to the team and the organization.


"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."— Albert Einstein

Point 1, 2 and 3 it's true. Many years ago ... I have read the book ... see: Gareth Morgan, Imaginization. New Mindsets for Seeing, Organizing, and Managing (1993).

I couldn't agree with you enough Dave. Simplifying complex projects especially those that need collaboration across cross-functional teams and team members with varying levels of technical expertise in different areas. I always start with the why before the how for a project or new tool such as how is this contributing to our overall strategy/objective and then break down what role each member plays for the project to work. Another key is to also speak slowly and ask questions to cater to the different learning preferences (an excellent point you raised by you Dave!).

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