There are loads of things that make a project complex, and in the past I’ve written about criteria for complexity and what ‘true’ complexity means.
However, I’m now leaning towards the opinion that if you think it’s complex, it’s complex. The benchmark from which to approach managing complexity is whether you are worried about it being complex. Because if you are struggling with all the moving parts, then other people in your business probably are as well, and you all need strategies to get things feeling more comfortable.
OK, your project might not tick all the boxes for ‘pure’ complexity as defined by academics, but who cares about that, right? We want YOUR project to be successful, and that means meeting you where you are, and dealing with the stakeholders and the situation you find yourself in.
So when you’re feeling like things are getting out of control and the complexity level on your project is spiralling, what can you do about it? The infographic below sets out – in a high level way – three ways you can start to approach complex situations. Ultimately, the aim is for you to feel like things are under control.
Take whatever steps you need to that help you identify where the complexity is coming from and then break it down to deal with each part.
There’s more information about how to reduce complexity on projects in this article.
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Experienced project managers will agree that complex projects are a headache for lots of reasons. Complexity adds all kinds of challenges and cost. But if you can reduce that complexity then you can take some of the stress out of your project.
“If you can understand it, you can move on to reduction.”
Here are 3 ways to reduce complexity, once you know what is making your projects complex.
1. Resolve It
Just fix it. Make it go away. Use a different technology that is tried and tested. Add more time to the schedule. Throw money at the problem. Whatever it takes.
Unfortunately, many project complexities can’t be resolved like this, but it is definitely worth a try in the first instance.
2. Reduce It
Make the complexity less severe, with less of an impact on your project. This really does rely on you fully understanding what’s behind the complexity so that you can unpick it and come up with some strategies to chip away at it.
Harvey Maylor gave a presentation at a PMI Global Congress where he shared the results of some work he had done in this area. He talked about running 43 workshops with 1100 managers and in those sessions they were asked what percentage of the identified complexities in their projects they would be able to resolve or reduce.
I was surprised that they reported that they could reduce 82% of project complexities. Even if they were wrong by a factor of 2 that’s still 40% of complex issues that could be managed down.
What’s left when you reduce complexity is residual complexity (like residual risk). That might need a different approach or strategy to address, but it’s likely to be less of a headache to put in place than having to deal with the complexity in its entirety.
Having said that, the third complexity reduction technique isn’t really a reduction technique at all…
3. Live With It
You’ve identified it. You can choose to manage it and run with it, working out a practical response to dealing with rather than passively doing nothing.
One strategy that Maylor talked about is actively choosing the right person to sponsor and lead the project when complexity is involved. Different types of complexity issues require different skills at the top.
For example, a project that is complex for socio-political reasons needs a charismatic leader who can work with stakeholder groups to share the vision and sell the benefits. A project that is structurally complex needs a sponsor with great technical skills, someone who can juggle multiple parts and bring them back together as a whole. A project that struggles with emergent complexity requires a strategic thinker, someone who can see the bigger picture and make connections.
Getting the right team in place and framing their involvement in the project in the right way can help mitigate the impact of complexities if you can’t manage them out in any other way.
In this video I talk about the different types of complexity that you might face on your projects, as inspired and defined by Cranfield University.
PMI has produced a whole practice guide on managing complex projects. Navigating Project Complexity: A Practice Guide, takes you through how to assess your project in the complexity stakes and then put together a robust project management approach to handle the areas that might be difficult.
But it all starts with building a working environment that fosters the culture for complex projects to succeed.
The conditions for success
PMI identifies six conditions that, if present, will increase your chance of success on a complex project. Let’s take a look and see what they are and how you can recreate them in your own environment.
It won’t come as much of a surprise to know that strong leadership is going to really help you develop and deliver a complex project. A good leader should:
Read more about the four traits of great leaders here (hint: it’s an attitude).
When working on a complex project, one of the key things a leader can do is to tell everyone that it’s an important initiative. Even if you can’t plan it to a fine degree of detail, at least set the leadership agenda so everyone is aware that it’s a huge strategic priority.
2. Portfolio management
Get portfolio management.
OK, that’s harder to do than it is to write. Portfolio management gives you the tools to navigate through complex project situations because:
A culture that fosters collaboration is going to be able to successful negotiate the complexities of projects far more successfully than one which prefers knowledge silos.
Encourage communication between team members and also up to the project sponsor and program or portfolio team. Use change management practices to ensure that new ways of working are properly embedded. As a project manager, work with an open door policy both within your own team and also supporting cross-functional working across diverse teams as well.
4. Performance measurements
You can cope better with complex situations if the structure is in place to measure them. Performance metrics give you the chance to understand the health of the project at a given point in time. Then you can act to address that if necessary.
Set up your performance measurements (get some tips from Gartner’s experts for setting up project metrics here) before your projects go too far. Typical things that you would want to measure are:
Complex projects would also benefit from using Earned Value Management too. Actually, the list of things to measure for complex projects is quite similar to what I’d expect more straightforward projects to be measuring.
5. Align organisational structures
Typically you’ll be managing projects within a projectised, matrix or functional organisation. The structure you use depends on the culture of the business, geography and lots of other things. However, for complex projects you may find a different-to-normal set up works better.
A flatter structure may work well with a distributed project team. There may be more delegated authority than normal. In my experience co-locating the team works well, as does arranging the resources under the line management control of a project manager so that managing the resources involved becomes easier.
In short, set up your complex project in any way you like that makes it easier to manage. The point is to take complexity out with your management structure, not make the situation worse!
Carry out an assessement of the skills available in the team toensure that you have the right resources available to you. Ideally, you should do this before the project really begins, otherwise you could find yourself committed to delivering project tasks and no one capable of doing them.
It’s fine to bring in external help if you feel that would bolster your internal team, but remember that long-term you should aim to be supporting this change initiative yourselves, so build in knowledge transfer from external resources.
By focusing on these six areas, you can create an environment for your project where even complex initiatives are more likely to succeed.
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