Project Management

Turn Chaos Into Success

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Categories: Complexity

Project managers usually advance in their careers by managing small, then medium and ultimately large projects. What project managers may not be prepared for is the complexity that comes with taking on bigger projects. Left unmanaged, this complexity leads to chaos and ultimately project failure. 

Why does this happen? 

A business system is characterized by processes and activities that work in tandem to deliver a specific result that benefits customers. Throughout a project's life cycle, it can encounter a number of business systems -- such as leadership systems (how leaders set values and organizational performance and governance) and customer systems (engagement strategy to meet customer needs and support that relationship) -- that independently and jointly put pressure on the project. 

As you segment the business systems further, you will find underlying, interrelated business processes and activities that create even more complexity. And as the project traverses along the value chain, more strategic tensions apply, such as competing research and development priorities or sales quotas.

Projects that disrupt these systems and value chains promise new and improved approaches. But project managers must mediate the chaos this disruption generates to achieve project success. 

Organizations with less mature processes and fewer performance measures tend to put more pressure on project teams. In these organizations, the project team is responsible for navigating the chaos caused by increased complexity. Projects often devolve into uphill battles and ultimately fail. This demonstrates an inherent "inverse tension" between process maturity and project complexity. 

Reduce complexity by relaxing tensions.

By understanding tensions, project managers can develop a management discipline that shapes the project plan and enables success. To create that discipline, follow these foundational steps:

  1. Identify the business systems that impact the project, as well as their implications.
  2. Classify the current maturity of the business systems and value chain, and plan any needed workarounds. 
  3. Categorize project complexity by assessing the project plan, methods and team.
I use APQC's Process Framework as one source to identify common organization business systems and processes, and their potential pitfalls.

A team should identify the system's performance gaps to manage mediations and avoid negative impacts proactively.  

To assess the performance of business systems, I generally rely on the CMMI model (Capability Maturity Model Integration). I define the performance criteria according to the following maturity levels: 

  1. Initial: The starting point for use of a new or undocumented repeat process
  2. Repeatable: The process is documented sufficiently to enable the team to follow the same steps again
  3. Defined: The process is confirmed as a standard business process
  4. Managed: The process is quantitatively managed in accordance with agreed-upon metrics
  5. Optimized: The process includes deliberate process optimization and improvement

I also use simple checklists to assess the project capability of an organization and team to determine any preventative actions I can take in the planning phase. For example, asking a series of assessment questions that identify process maturity levels allows me to consider any gaps I need to mitigate to improve project performance. 


To analyze team-related project complexity, I leverage the characteristics outlined by U.S. authors Kathleen B. Hass and Amit Kumar:

  • Details: The number of variables and interfaces 
  • Ambiguity: Lack of awareness of events and causality 
  • Uncertainty: Inability to pre-evaluate actions 
  • Unpredictability: Inability to know what will happen 
  • Dynamics: Rapid rate of change 
  • Social structure: Numbers and types of interactions 
  • Interrelationships: Many existing interdependencies and interconnections  


I used these frameworks to reduce complexity and increase predictability when I managed a big project team that was working with a large number of suppliers. The project was highly complex, behind schedule and expected to go over budget. 

The team managed supplier payments by sending invoices to accounts payable once the related work was complete. Using assessment questions, I discovered the main problem was related to a large global transformation initiative, in which the purchasing team worked within limited regional relationships. I classified this as a high complex engagement because the team:

  1. Was ambiguous about the role it needed to play 
  2. Was uncertain when work would be accomplished and order fulfillment would occur
  3. Had changed its social structure from regional to global and required more time to align strategically
  4. Had a high dynamic rate of change that created performance issues
In my management improvement plan, I was able to clearly demonstrate what business system was failing, where in the system it was located and why it was underperforming. I created a clear path forward to restore performance, which resulted in reduced complexity, better alignment and lower costs.

How do you create a framework to get a handle on complexity?

Learn more about complexity on
Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: April 24, 2014 01:28 PM | Permalink

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