If you asked most project managers if their project was complex, then they would likely say, yes. After all, the opposite of complex is straightforward, and if the work was simple, then you wouldn’t need a project manager, would you?
The debate about what makes a project too complex is something that project managers and academics (Baccarini literally wrote the paper on it) have been discussing for some time. PMI also has resources on the topic here. Clearly, the more difficult the project environment, the more difficult the project. But when the project plan is too complex, or when the complexity is a result of risks and issues on your project, you certainly want to know how to simplify the project and mitigate risk to get your project back on track.
There are some simple signs that we can look for that may indicate that your project is unnecessarily complex. Let’s take a look at the following seven symptoms and how we can address these issues.
1. Unclear Objectives
Ambiguity is unwelcome when you’re running projects for very good reason—you want to make sure that the tasks that go on the project schedule unfold to deliver a solution to align with organizational goals. Unclear objectives make it difficult to deliver the project; not only will deliverables be in question, but team building becomes near to impossible.
Nevertheless, many projects start with unclear objectives, or are ideas put forward by project sponsors who can’t always articulate their vision.
Work with leadership to define the objectives, even if that means only defining goals for the next few weeks out and building on that little by little. Let them know the potential impacts on the project and the team, and if the vision is still not clarified, you might recommend halting the project to save time and money.
2. Process Problems
Many managers use standard project methodology in use in their organization, and managers of large projects typically follow the processes and governance model as developed by their Project Management Office’s guidelines.
On a project that has become overly complex, routine established processes become harder to follow. Teams may not have a clear idea about how they are actually going to do the work. Catching other issues up the chain can help mitigate against process problems.
In some instances, however, you may know in advance that your existing processes won’t be suitable for this project, but you don’t necessarily know how to change them. This might be due to the introduction of new process, such as a team implementing Agile methods for the first time. Or the project might require using a vendor methodology that the team is unfamiliar with.
New methods definitely add to the complexity, and should be mitigated against. Define your working practices as you go along in a pragmatic way. In Agile, you can afford to be more iterative with process, along with the plan. With an external methodology, ensure your project plan incorporates time to train the team properly for these processes.
3. Cultural Differences
Does your project involve an international team? The more social and cultural groups included in your project, the more complex it will be. But cultural differences almost certainly should never negatively impact your project. Rather, smart leaders know how to elicit the benefits of cultural differences to add value to the project and the team.
On a practical note, managing a global distributed team means you’ll have to adapt schedules to deal with the different time zones and establish working practices that support cultural differences or language requirements.
Build trust in the team by focusing on team building to establish working practices that you can all support.
4. Technical Challenges
Technical components and constraints almost certainly contribute to project complexity, especially if you are introducing new technologies to your team or if the project itself involves complex technical integrations. The problem is when the technical processes or phases become overly complex. This is usually due to poor planning or errors in scope.
Make sure to spend time interviewing subject matter experts that can inform project scheduling accurately, to get multiple perspectives and estimates for the project plan. Also, build in adequate contingency when you know your project involves extensive technical integrations or requires rollout to your team.
5. Too Many Stakeholders
The larger your group of project stakeholders, the more potential impacts or changes can occur on the project simply due to different views on how to make the project a success. This can result in some quite difficult conflicts for the project manager to deal with, which can be challenging and contributes to the overall complexity level for this project.
When communicating with stakeholders, use all the project tools you have to keep your project status visible. This might seem counter-intuitive: more transparency means more potential changes or impacts to the project schedule. But keeping stakeholders well-briefed of the status of the project will keep everyone mindful of the impact of every change to the schedule. In this way, you promote crowd-sourced project success.
6. Communication Breakdowns
The more organizations and groups you have involved in your project, the more complex it becomes. The greater the number of interactions and communication channels, the harder it is to manage your message and keep everyone on the same page. The project manager has to manage all the communications and make sure everyone is informed about the essential points, while keeping the project moving forward.
Despite your best work, communication breakdowns still happen. Technologies fail, parties disagree, and some people will be working of outmoded documentation, despite the email sitting in their inboxes with the updated version.
There are several ways to mitigate against communication breakdowns. The first is to centralize documentation and project communications online. Move away from emailing project documentation today.
You can also get your team to support you: with online collaboration tools, you can promote conversation threads, attach project documentation at the level of the project tasks, and develop relevant stakeholder communications groups. Proper online documentation also helps mitigate against legal issues around security concerns around email.
7. Unforeseen Risk
The riskier your project, the greater the degree of complexity. If you know the sort of risks that your project will face then you can plan for them.
The problem with complex projects is that they typically include a lot of unknown variables and things that change as we have seen above. That means that there is a lot of risk, including some risks that you won’t even be able to identify. You won’t be able to plan for risks that you can’t predict (the ‘unknown unknowns’ like the weather). But you can plan for the risks when you actually set up risk management processes and maintain appropriate levels of contingency in your project.
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