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Living on the Edge: Managing Project Complexity Pt 2

In Part 2 of the series we present a four-step framework for managing complex projects. We then examine the first three steps:

  • How to diagnose project complexity on a particular project,
  • How to apply complexity thinking to make the most optimal decisions about project team leadership assignments, and
  • How to apply complexity thinking to determine the most suitable project approach in terms of the project cycle.

This three-part series was adapted from the book Managing Project Complexity, A New Model , by Kathleen B. Hass. ©2009 by Management Concepts, Inc. The book was the recipient of the 2009 PMI David I. Cleland Project Management Literature Award recognizing authors of a published book that significantly advances project management knowledge, concepts, and practice. All rights reserved. If you would like a copy of all three articles, please request by emailing the author at[email protected].


Related Article: Living on the Edge: Managing Project Complexity Part 1

Applying Complexity Thinking to Manage Projects – A Framework

When to use this Framework to Apply Complexity Thinking to Projects

Applying complexity thinking to help manage challenging projects should be used during many phases of the project lifecycle. Take your project leadership team through the analysis recommended in the remaining sections of this paper to apply complexity thinking to the major decisions you make about your project. Specifically, adopt the project complexity management approaches outlined here when you are:

  • Conducting enterprise analysis during the study phase of a project
  • Preparing the business case for a new project proposal
  • Conceptualizing and architecting the solution
  • Initiating and planning a new project
  • Initiating and planning a new major phase/release of a project
  • Recovering a troubled project
  • Initiating and planning a new program
  • Recovering troubled projects within a program

Use the framework described herein to apply complexity thinking to specific projects. There are four steps in the complexity management process:

  1. Diagnose project complexity using the project complexity model
  2. Assign competent leaders commensurate with the complexity profile
  3. Select the project approach commensurate with the complexity profile
  4. Manage complexity dimensions that are present on your project

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Exhibit 1.0 – The Complexity Management Framework

1. Diagnose Project Complexity

Diagnosing project complexity is very different from assessing project risks. Risks are threats or opportunities that may be present in the future that need to be understood, prevented, leveraged, or managed. Complexity dimensions are present on the project as soon as it is conceptualized, and can be understood, managed and even leveraged for positive project outcomes. To diagnose project complexity, bring together a diverse group of influential thinkers. Use the model to diagnose the size, complexity and risk of a particular project by shading the cells that best describe the project for each complexity dimension. Then apply the complexity formula below. Note that a project that is small in size may be moderately or even highly complex based on the existence of other complexity dimensions.


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Exhibit 2.0 – Project Complexity Formula

2. Assign Project Leaders (Project Managers, Business Analysts, Business Representatives that are Visionaries, Architects, Technologists) based on the Project Complexity Profile

Project sometimes fail because of an inappropriate match of project leadership to project characteristics. Among others, the project manager and business analyst are two critical project leadership positions.

Once the project diagnosis is made and project complexity dimensions have been identified, organizations should apply complexity thinking to project leadership assignments. Typically, key project leadership positions are assigned by management. However, if there is a gap in capabilities the project will be significantly challenged (hence, why we succeed on only 29% of projects, as noted earlier). If needed, convert the complexity diagnosis into a visual diagram like the one presented here to communicate the project complexity to help make the case to secure additional resources to close capability gaps in project leadership positions.

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Exhibit 3.0 – Depiction of a Highly Complex Project

Staffing surveys reveal an increasing demand for senior project managers and business analysts. As these project leaders are assigned to complex projects, it is essential that they are prepared for the challenge. Presented here is the information needed to make appropriate project leadership assignments.

Project Leader Knowledge and Skill Requirements

The knowledge and skills required to manage complex projects is considerable.

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Exhibit 4.0 – Skill Requirements for Complex Project Manager and Business Analyst

Project Leader Career Path

As organizations depend more and more on project outcomes to achieve their strategic goals, they are implementing career paths for their project managers and business analysts.

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Exhibit 5.0 – Project Manager and Business Analyst Career Path

3. Select the Project Cycle based on the Project Complexity Profile

Based on the project complexity profile, the project leadership team determines the appropriate project approach to use before initiating the planning cycle. All projects have a cycle, a sequence of stages through which the project passes. Typical cycles have a series of periods and phases, each with a defined output that guides research, development, construction, and/or acquisition of goods and services.1 As projects have become more complex, project cycles have evolved to address the various levels of complexity. The bottom line is, as projects become more complex, more iterative, adaptive, even extreme approaches are needed. This is so that the team can develop the solution in an agile fashion, delivering the minimally viable solution first to gain insight and get feedback from the customers prior to large investments of time and resources. Then the team develops and implements more feature-rich increments, continuing to gain feedback and make improvements after each release.

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Exhibit 6.0 – Project Management Approaches as Complexity Increases

Applying Complexity Thinking to Small, Independent, Low-Risk Projects

The serial approach to project management referred to as the Waterfall Model, is a highly effective project cycle for short-duration, well-understood projects with stable requirements and few or no dependencies. This is the classic systems development life-cycle. It is essentially a linear ordering of activities that presumes requirements are fully developed and approved prior to design and construction of the solution. It also assumes that events affecting the project are predictable, tools and activities are well-understood, and as a rule, once a phase is complete, it will not be revisited. The strengths of this approach are that it lays out the steps for development and stresses the importance of requirements. The limitations are that projects rarely follow the sequential flow, and clients usually find it difficult to completely state all requirements early in the project.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Medium-Sized, Moderately Complex Projects

As projects become more complicated and more dependencies exist, it is wise to break the work down into manageable components or sub-projects delivered incrementally. The challenge is to ensure that the increments can be integrated into a fully functioning solution that meets project objectives. The “Vee” Model, authored by NASA to manage project complexity, is often used for moderate-risk projects because it includes the relationship between decomposition and integration, and the concept of incremental delivery. The Vee Model involves progressively elaborating requirements (the left side of the Vee), while defining the approach to integration, verification, and validation (the right side of the Vee) at every decomposition level. It assumes the requirements and testing processes, elicited through various business analysis techniques, are known before building begins. In essence, the Vee Model adds the vertical dimension to the Waterfall Model, altering the Waterfall diagonal shape into a “V.” At the base of the Vee is the component build. Components of the system are developed in increments, and each component produces a partial implementation; functionality is gradually added in subsequent increments.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Large, Highly Complex Projects and Mega Programs

Since complex projects are by their very nature less predictable, it is important for the project team to keep their options open, and, indeed, to even build options into the project approach. This “keep-our-options-open” approach requires a considerable amount of time spent on researching and studying the business problem or opportunity, conducting competitive, technological, and benchmark studies, defining dependencies and interrelationships, and identifying all potential options to meet the business need or solve the business problem. In addition, the team analyzes the economic, technical, operational, cultural, and legal feasibility of each solution option until it is clear which option has a higher probability of success. This approach often involves rapid prototyping—a fast build of a solution component to prove an idea is feasible—typically used for high-risk components, requirements understanding, or for a proof of concept. The model that applies in this situation is the Spiral Model, described as an iterative waterfall approach. In addition, the Evolutionary Development Model can be used, which allows for the implementation of the solution incrementally based on experience and learnings with results from prior versions. Solution functions are prioritized based on business value and, once high-risk areas are resolved, the highest value components are delivered first.

1. Mooz, Hal, Forsberg, Kevin, Cotterman, Howard, (2003). Communicating Project Management, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

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