Monday, 17 November 2008 08:14

Introducing the New Project Complexity Model. Part IV.

Written by Kathleen B. Hass

Applying Complexity Thinking to Manage Project Complexity Dimensions

For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it is wrong:”
H. L. Mencken, journalist and satirist

Traditional project management, system engineering, and business analysis practices are often insufficient when applied to complex projects that behave dynamically. In the case of complex projects, leadership is the critical component that can make the difference. This fourth article in the series on managing project complexity presents practical techniques for project leaders faced with challenging complex initiatives. We estimate that putting these techniques into practice can reduce project rework by 30 to 50 percent, thus eliminating excessive time and cost overruns. For detailed information about the complexity management techniques presented here, refer to the book: Managing Complex Projects: A New Model.

Managing the Complexities of Long Duration Projects

The biggest problem with long-term projects is that so many unforeseeable things can happen. These projects run the risk of working to achieve a business objective that has changed during the course of the project. Consequently, the new business solution may no longer meet current business needs. Dependencies that have been identified and managed may disappear, but new ones often emerge. In addition, project teams fatigue over time, losing interest in the project. Long-duration projects typically cause a lack of confidence in time and cost estimates. Complexity management techniques include both adaptive and conventional approaches:



Management Approaches

  • Constantly changing:
    • Business goals
    • Competitors
    • Global economy
    • Partnerships and alliances
    • Stakeholders
    • Project boundaries
    • Business objectives
    • Scope
    • Dependencies
    • Interrelationships
  • Too large: invisible, unmanageable, unable to identify dependencies and relationships
  • Team fatigue, leading to unpredictable human behaviors


  • Adopt the appropriate project cycle and PM practices for the situation.
  • Minimize scope.
  • Delay design decisions until the last responsible moment.
  • Use incremental development.
  • Use progressive elaboration and rolling wave planning. Establish a systematic estimating process using multiple estimating methods.
  • Pay close attention to team composition and health.
  • Use lean techniques.
  • Use RAD development to increase velocity for well-understood components.


  • Perform rigorous time and cost management.
  • Use stage-gate management.
  • Conduct continuous risk management.
  • Use a systematic approach to develop reliable estimates.

Managing the Complexities of Large, Dispersed, Culturally Diverse Project Teams

Complex projects almost always involve multiple layers and types of teams. Geographical diversity and dependency on technology dramatically magnify the levels of organizational complexity. Outsourcing all or part of the solution also adds a significant level of complexity. Applying the appropriate practices, tools, and techniques to multiple parties at the right time is a complex endeavor. The project manager role is more about team leadership than project management. Techniques to consider:



Management Approaches

  • Many complex adaptive teams
  • Human behaviors impossible to predict
  • Multi-layered, interdependent teams
    • Geographically dispersed
    • Culturally diverse
    • Virtual
    • Multi-skilled
  • Dissimilar procedures, practices, and tools leading to integration issues
  • Risk management inadequacies and inconsistencies, leading to unknown events
  • Integration of interdependent components produced by different teams


  • Establish an experienced core leadership team.
  • Leverage the power of teams.
  • Build great teams.
  • Use edge-of-chaos management when appropriate.
  • Empower agile teams instilled with a culture of discipline.
  • Use virtual teams as a strategic asset.
  • Insist on face-to-face meetings for key planning and decision-making.
  • Use virtual collaboration and information sharing technology.


  • Lead, don’t manage contractor teams.
  • Insist on standard procedures and tools when appropriate.
  • Establish a culture of collaboration and open communication.

Managing the Complexities of Innovative, Urgent Projects

An urgent project that demands an innovative solution and has an aggressive scope and schedule is another type of complex project. Urgent projects, by their very nature, are different from what we consider to be traditional projects. Traditional projects are usually started with a defined scope, budget, and timeline, and an attempt is made to follow a prescribed methodology. Urgent projects are seldom started this way. For urgent projects, time is critical for project success; delays mean a high probability of project failure. Crisis situations such as war and natural disasters are examples of urgent projects. Urgent projects are both planned (innovative new product) and unplanned (hurricane Katrina). Consider the following managerial approaches:



Management Approaches

  • Urgent projects:
    • Planned – innovative products
    • Unplanned – unknown critical situations or events
  • High stakes; highly visible
  • Time rules, supersedes best practices
  • Cost typically not an issue (but can becomes an issue if urgency wanes)
  • Team struggles to remain independent of external constraints
  • Process is thrown out
  • Interdependencies are missed due to speed and isolation
  • Sense of urgency fades
  • Environment of confusion, mistakes and misinformation


  • Establish permanent, flexible innovation teams or task forces.
  • Hand pick the best team members.
  • Use “twinned leadership”.
  • Use “edge of chaos” leadership.
  • Time-box the effort; promote urgency.
  • Deliver minimal workable solution.
  • Partnerships vs. contractor relationship.
  • Insist on face-to-face decision-making.
  • Deploy all available resources.
  • Employ a proactive communication strategy to maintain the sense of urgency.
  • Support teambuilding.
  • Monitor changing perceptions of urgency.


  • Establish a time-boxed schedule.
    • Creates sense of urgency
    • Forces decision-making
  • Conduct decision gate reviews.

Managing the Complexities of Project Ambiguity

A significant percentage of project failures occur because of unclear business problems or opportunities, and ambiguous, difficult-to-define solutions. In addition, business objectives are dynamic, changing as the business changes. Techniques include:



Management Approaches

  • Unclear business problem or opportunity
  • Solution difficult to define
  • Unclear business objectives
  • Unclear solution feasibility
  • Stakeholders difficult to identify
  • Unclear dependencies/interrelationships
  • Unclear project boundaries
  • Unclear scope
  • Unknown unknowns


  • Focus on clear business objectives.
  • Establish “innovation teams”.
  • Apply edge-of-chaos management.
  • Guide the group to creative decisions.
  • Adopt professional business analysis practices:
    • Feasibility analysis
    • Root-cause analysis
    • Value-chain analysis
    • Business case development.
  • Use techniques that foster creativity.
  • Build a team that is “in the zone”.


  • Establish clear business objectives.
  • Conduct project risk analysis.

Managing the Complexities of Poorly Understood, Volatile Requirements

Project complexity ensues when requirements are unstable and poorly understood, functionality is complex, or customer/user support is insufficient.

“Individual requirements are rarely complex in themselves; it is the relationships and interdependencies between them that result in complexity—so it is these that need to be spotted and managed.”
—Dan Rossner, PA Consulting Group

Defining and managing requirements is hard—very hard—for many reasons. The complexity of the requirements management effort is rooted in widespread deficiencies in requirements practices, inadequate involvement by key stakeholders, and numerous interdependencies among individual requirements. Consider the following:



Management Approaches

Requirements alone are not complex; it is the interdependencies and interrelationships that make them complex:

  • Inconsistent expectations
  • Insufficient/sporadic stakeholder involvement, leading to missed, ambiguous, and incomplete information
  • Deficient/inadequate practices, causing defect-laden requirements
  • Unknown unknowns
  • Requirement complexities:
    • Ambiguity
    • Interdependencies
    • Interrelationships
    • Boundaries
    • Overlaps
    • Inconsistencies
    • Changes
    • Traceability.


  • Use professional business analysis practices.
  • Establish requirements integration teams.
  • Minimize scope.
  • Use agile requirements analysis
    • Test-driven requirements development
    • Iteration/incremental development
    • Visualization/visual control.
  • Define at the appropriate level of detail.
  • Establish a requirements knowledge management system.
  • Communicate the right message to the right audience to continually validate requirements.


  • Involve customers/users throughout the project.
  • Manage changes.

Managing the Complexities of High-Visibility Strategic Projects with Political Implications

Strategic projects are by their very nature politically sensitive. Every organization has undefined political processes and ever-present power struggles. Political maneuvers can be stifling and overwhelming to a project, and can even lead to project failure. Strategies can shift, causing virtually every aspect of the project to change. Project stakeholders often have conflicting expectations. Techniques include:



Management Approaches

Constant change caused by:

  • Political maneuvers
  • Power struggles
  • Changing strategies
  • Changing expectations
  • Inconsistent expectations
  • Multiple stakeholder group interrelationships
  • Political sensitivity


  • Establish a political management strategy and plan.
  • Establish an executive steering committee with effective decision-making.
  • Focus on networking, relationship-building.
  • Seek a mentor and coach.
  • Manage customer relationships.
  • Become a public relations expert:
    • Promote project
    • Promote self.
  • Focus on business benefits.
  • Manage virtual alliances.
  • Involve customers and users in every aspect of the project.
  • Leverage the authority of the functional managers.


  • Establish strong executive sponsorship and executive oversight.
  • Devote considerable attention to managing stakeholders and their expectations.

Managing Large-Scale Organizational Change

Large-scale organizational change typically involves new technologies, mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, new strategies, cultural transformation, globalization, new partnerships, and/or e-business. Handling change well can mean the difference between success and failure of a project, and consequently, of an organization. Techniques offered by the change-management guru include (Kotter, 2002):



Management Approaches

  • Unpredictable human emotions
  • Resistance to change causing anxiety, tension, anger, pride, arrogance, cynicism, exhaustion, insecurity
  • Complacency and loss of support, leading to isolation of project team
  • No executive guiding coalition, causing inconsistent management behaviors
  • Unclear vision; current culture blocks the new vision


  • Establish a cultural change framework.
  • Create a sense of urgency.
  • Build an influential guiding team.
  • Establish a clear, compelling vision.
  • Communicate for buy-in.
  • Empower stakeholders for action.
  • Deliver short-term wins.
  • Use external and internal incentives.
  • Conduct rigorous industry analysis.
  • Prototype new products.


  • Manage dependencies.
  • Conduct research, due diligence, and analysis.

Managing Complex Dependencies and External Constraints

Large-scale change inevitably involves cross-functional dependencies, external constraints, and changes to the external environment that will need to be identified, owned, and managed by a senior person on the project leadership team. Experience has demonstrated that these dependencies and constraints are dynamic and are sometimes difficult to identify. They are likely to change not only throughout the project, but also after the new solution has been deployed. Considerations include:



Management Approaches

  • Unknown dependencies
  • Unknown constraints
  • Interrelating constraints
  • Unpredictable reactions to interventions
  • Unintended consequences
  • Outsourced team dependency
  • Unpredictable human behaviors
  • Significant level of IT complexity
    • Multiple contractors
    • Large number of teams
    • Multiple project plans
    • High visibility
    • Sensitivity to political, environmental and social issues


  • Manage uncertainties.
  • Assign owners to dependencies.
  • Adapt to new practices.
  • Establish a framework for managing external partner dependencies:
    • Supplier partnerships
    • Integrated design teams
    • Governance
    • Management
    • Technical
    • Management.


  • Manage risks.
  • Conduct contract negotiations.
  • Manage contacts.

Managing IT Complexity

Complexity of IT projects comes in many flavors, both technical and managerial. In addition, there is a great deal of pressure to build the next generation of IT systems that are expected to be agile and easily changed. Consider these approaches:



Management Approaches


  • Collection of systems functioning together to achieve a common mission
  • Integration issues
  • Unproven technology


  • Multiple contractors
  • A large and diverse project team
  • A central master plan with separate plans for subprojects
  • Highly visible and sensitive to political, environmental, and social issues


  • Intelligent
  • Adaptable
  • Innovative
  • Easily changes

Adaptive Management Techniques

  • Build Solutions that Empower Customers.
  • Establish “Skunk Works” Teams.
  • Exploit the Advantages of Edge-Of-Chaos Management.
  • Introduce a Last-Responsible-Moment Decision Making Process.
  • Structure the Effort into Micro Projects.
  • Create Communities Of Practice and Diversity Of Thought.
  • Ensure Your IT Architect is Seasoned.
  • Forge New Partnerships.
  • Set Up Integration Teams.
  • Strike the Right Balance Between Discipline and Agility.

Complexity-Reducing Design Techniques

  • Limit Solution Component Dependencies.
  • Make Use of Enabling solution Design Tools.
  • Design for People - Build for Change.

Technologies That Enable Change

  • Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).
  • Business Process Management (BPM).
  • Web 2.0 Development.
  • Unified Communications (UC).


Complex project management is sensible chaos—striking the right balance between plans (static) and process (dynamic). We recommend using some conventional project management techniques along with some complexity thinking techniques that are “on the edge of chaos” to manage changes and uncertainties and to foster creativity and innovation.

Lissack, Michael R., Roos, Johan. (2002) The Next Common Sense, The e-Manager’s Guide to Mastering Complexity. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Rind, D. (2 April 1999), Complexity and Climate, Science Magazine, Complex Systems Special Issue, 2 April 1999: Vol. 284. no. 5411, pp. 105 – 107
Alawneh, Luay, Debbabi, Jarraya, Yosr, Soeanu, Andrei, Hassayne, Fawzi. A Unified Approach for Verification and Validation of Systems and Software Engineering Models, 13th Annual IEEE International Symposium and Workshop on Engineering of Computer Based Systems (ECBS'06) pp. 409-418
New York Times, 11 July 2002 “Cost overruns (totally hundreds of billions of dollars) for large public works projects have stayed largely constant for most the last century.”
Mooz, Hal, Forsberg, Kevin, Cotterman, Howard, (2003). Communicating Project Management, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons,
Porter, Michael. (1985) Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster Inc.
Lippert, M., Roock, S., Wolf, H., Züllighoven, H. XP in Complex Project Settings: Some Extensions, In: Informatik/Informatique. Schweizerischer Verband der Informatikorganisationen. Nr. 2, April, 2002.
Ambler, Scott W. Agile Analysis.

Kotter, John P. (2002) Getting to the Heart of How to Make Change Happen. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press

Kathleen Hass is the Senior Practice Consultant for Management Concepts and author of Managing Project Complexity, A New Model. Ms. Hass is a prominent presenter at industry conferences, author and lecturer in the project management and business analysis disciplines. Certifications include: SEI CMMI appraiser, Malcolm Baldrige Total Quality Award examiner, Zenger-Miller facilitator, and Project Management Institute Project Management Professional. Ms. Hass serves as Director at Large, IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis), Chapter Governance Committee chairperson, and member of the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge committee, contributing to several chapters and lead author of the Enterprise Analysis Chapter.
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