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Author: Kathleen B. (Kitty) Hass

Living on the Edge Managing Project Complexity Part 3

In Part 3 of the series we propose strategies to manage, control, and leverage the specific complexity dimensions that are present on your project.

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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 email at [email protected].

In this last part of the series, we examine step 4 of the Framework: Managing Complexity Dimension.

1. Make Managerial Decisions to Control and Leverage the Complexity Dimensions

Projects sometimes fail because of misapplication of good methods and techniques. Applying complexity thinking to determine the appropriate techniques to use based on the complexity dimensions present is the key to success when managing complex projects. Successful managers of complex projects use situational project management by adapting their leadership style, and the project management, systems engineering, and business analysis techniques to manage the complexity dimensions that exist.

Traditional project management, system engineering, and business analysis practices are often insufficient (sometimes, downright deficient) when applied to complex projects that behave dynamically. In the case of complex projects, leadership is the critical component that can make the difference. The remaining sections of this chapter present 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 rework causing time and cost overruns. For each complexity dimension, the project team has an array of complexity management techniques from which to choose. Steps to manage project complexity dimensions include: (1) identify the dimensions that make your project complex; (2) select the techniques that will best manage each complexity dimension that is present, and (3) tailor techniques to best manage the unique characteristics of the complexity dimension. As described in the Project Complexity Model, there are nine complexity dimensions. We discuss options to manage each dimension.

Applying Complexity Thinking to 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 to reduce risk include:

  • Appropriate management approach – Conduct rigorous enterprise analysis during the pre-project study phase to clarify the high-level management issues and help the customer, architect and project manager make the appropriate management choice for what appears to be a long-duration project. Determine the specific nature of the business problem and appropriate project management structure: Is this really a program? Is it a series of modestly scoped, small projects? Something else? Must the project or program deliver a product line, a system of systems? Can the solution be delivered in components? Whether the project is long- or short-duration, if the problem or solution contains significant elements of complexity and uncertainty (see below), success depends on selecting the management approach that will deal with the problem/solution complexities. The customer, architect and project sponsor need to recognize the nature of the problem/solution, understand that the conventional, reductionist systems/software engineering and project management approaches may not work, and then make the right choice of management approaches to solving the problem.
  • Evolutionary development – Develop, and if possible, deliver the solution in increments, applying lessons learned from each increment into the next iteration and constantly testing for alignment with business objectives. This technique involves iterations of a cycle that builds, refines, and reviews so that the correct solution gradually emerges. This technique can be difficult to control, but it is very useful when properly applied.
  • Time and cost management – delivering on schedule is one of the main challenges for a long-duration project due to the enormous amount of work involved. Implement a rigorous process to track progress and control delivery. Manage the schedule and budget by establishing a project support team to update and maintain the schedule and budget baselines, and escalate issues for your attention in a timely manner.
  • Rapid Application Development (RAD) – If requirements are understood, and scope is contained, RAD allows greatly abbreviated development timelines. The component-based approach allows for incremental testing and defect repair, and significantly reduced risk compared to single, comprehensive delivery. RAD can be costly if requirements aren’t well-defined (high risk of requirement defects), or the design is not sound (high risk of integration issues).
  • Progressive elaboration and rolling wave planning – Instead of trying to plan the entire project, start by defining just the increment requirements and conceptual design activities in detail, and define the remaining phases at a summary level. After requirements are understood, and there is an idea of what the solution will be, define the design, construction, and test activities in detail. This makes it possible to request the resources needed in increments, instead of all at once.
  • Multiple estimating methods – Build a work breakdown structure (WBS) and estimate the time and cost associated with lowest-level activities for near-term project phases (bottom-up estimating). It is difficult to know what out-phases will require, so the WBS cannot be used for bottom-up estimating and other estimating approaches are needed. Use expert judgment and historical information from similar projects to help devise and verify estimates. It may also be helpful to use industry guidelines to create estimates. It is always wise to use multiple estimating techniques.
  • Attention to team composition and process – As the project drags on and fatigue sets in, project managers should look at both team composition and team processes to maintain continued motivation among members. Celebrate and reward success at key milestones rather than waiting until the end of a long project. Continually capture lessons learned about how well the team is working together and implement suggested improvements. Build your expertise in leading high-performing teams.
  • Lean development techniques – Although the project is complex, do not be tempted to apply more rigor than necessary. Limit producing documents and conducting meetings to only those that add value to the project. Use storyboards to make the project plan visible and identify dependencies. Continually verify that the project is building the minimum viable solution. Use the motto: “Barely sufficient is enough to move forward.”
  • Control gate reviews; stage-gate management – After completing each major project phase, conduct quality reviews of deliverables and determine lessons learned. Update the project cost, schedule, and scope baselines for the remaining project phases, incorporating lessons learned in the plans. At the same time, re-examine the business case to make sure the investment is still sound.
  • Real risk management – In practice, few projects perform adequate risk management techniques. For long-duration projects, it is essential to identify risks every month and reexamine risk responses to ensure management of known risks and the identification of new risks.

Applying Complexity Thinking to 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 include:

  • Great teams…you need one – When structuring the project, establish a core project team, and multiple core sub-project teams that are small (four to six people), dedicated full-time to the project, co-located (preferably in a workroom), highly trained, and multi-skilled. These core teams will augment their efforts by bringing in subject matter experts and forming sub-teams as needed. Select team members not only because of their knowledge and skills but also because they are passionate and love to work in a challenging, collaborative environment. Develop and use a team operating agreement. Develop team leadership skills, and dedicate efforts to transitioning these groups into high-performing teams with common values, beliefs, and a cultural foundation upon which to flourish.
  • Team leadership – The PM and BA need to learn how to delegate and decide what roles and responsibilities to keep since he/she is now managing through others. In addition, they need to determine what procedures to standardize across sub-teams and what to allow others to tailor. For example, the overall project/program may follow one cycle while allowing other teams to differ. The program may use a variant of Waterfall Model with highly structured phases and decision gates, but allow individual projects to use agile techniques to achieve their individual objectives.
  • Contractor team management – Add contract terms for managing the contractor team (e.g., joint planning sessions, integrated project schedules, EVM, control gate reviews, award fees, and penalties). Document and communicate expectations and establish clear evaluation criteria. Develop and use a contractor team operating agreement. Conduct regular progress evaluations and periodic reviews of contract terms and conditions.
  • Virtual team management – For complex projects involving virtual team members distributed globally, communication and collaboration are critical. Communication manners, methods, and frequencies are crucial factors in determining the success or failure of virtual teams, so develop a communication strategy early in the project. There is no substitute for face-to-face sessions when the team is in early formative stages or when the team is in crisis. However, in today’s electronically borderless world, technology is an enabler to keep in close touch, manage interdependencies, and resolve issues. Audio conferencing, web meetings, and email are the rule of the day for progress reporting and quick decision making. Visual, paper-based communication takes on enormous importance when virtual teams are involved. Learn the art of keeping an adequate amount of documentation, without overburdening the team with too much. Formal procedures and processes are necessary to set and maintain expectations. Virtual teams can be more productive than traditional teams when managed well, so use them as a strategic advantage.
  • Collaboration – Involve all core team members to build the project storyboard in all project planning sessions and seek feedback often to continually improve the performance of the team. Secure best-in-class software tools to enable collaboration and document sharing, as well as personal communication and telecommunication tools. Enforce the use of standard procedures, practices, and tools.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Fixed Deadlines and Inflexible Competing Demands

Fixed deadlines almost always add risk to projects, because of the interdependency of time with other competing demands, including project scope, risk, quality, and cost. Economists have been warning us for years that success in a global marketplace is contingent upon our capability to produce small batches of tailored products on a tight schedule to meet growing demands in emerging markets. The same is true of projects: it’s necessary to deliver value to the organization faster, cheaper, and better. Techniques include:

  • Flexible high-performing team members – High-performing team members must have the skills, information, and motivation to adapt to change quickly. Team members must be able to move freely from project to project as priorities change. Standard project management, business analysis, and systems engineering procedures and tools, along with a project sponsor who is available in real time, all combine to provide the foundation for this flexibility.
  • Time-boxed schedule – While we all hate fixed deadlines, a time-boxed schedule increases the level of urgency felt by the project team and forces decisions to be made quickly and efficiently. Consider it your friend.
  • Fierce scope management – Eliminate all “nice-to-haves” and unnecessary features. Deliver the minimally viable solution.
  • Stage-gate or milestone management – Structure the schedule into a series of milestones marked by the completion of a major deliverable. Conduct control-gate reviews at each milestone to ensure the quality of the deliverables and to move quickly to the next stage. Milestone management frees the team to focus on the work needed to get to the next milestone only.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Ambiguous Business Problems, Opportunities, Solutions

Complex projects frequently involve a significant level of uncertainty and ambiguity. When the business problem or opportunity is unclear and ill-structured, it is difficult to identify stakeholders, define business benefits, determine interdependencies, and establish project boundaries. Likewise, when the solution is ambiguous, it is likely to be difficult to assess the feasibility of the concept or estimate costs with any degree of certainty. In this situation, all options must remain on the table, and an implementation project should not be funded until the team is certain that they understand both the business problem and/or opportunity, and that the recommended solution is optimal in terms of cost, time, value, and risk. Techniques include:

  • Business analysis – At this point, you are essentially in an R&D mode vs. a project implementation mode. Use business models and requirements-understanding models to clarify the current and target states of the business. Spend ample time 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.
  • Decision analysis – Decision analysis is applied during the enterprise analysis and architecture effort preceding project launch, and subsequently as needed. Analyze the economic, technical, operational, cultural, and legal feasibility of each solution option until it is clear which option has a higher probability of success. Develop initial solution designs to ensure the ability to manage solution dependencies and interrelationships. Determine answers to questions such as;
    • Is this effort unprecedented? Have we or anybody faced it before?
    • Is the technology that is likely to be needed advanced (not commercially available) or even nonexistent.
    • Do we understand the phenomena involved? That is, the scientific phenomena if there are any.
    • Is the problem within our business competence to solve? To understand?
    • Is the problem/solution environment clear?
  • Value-chain analysis – Describe processes within the organization that are impacted by the change, and evaluate the value each activity contributes to the organization’s product or services. The goal is to establish the ability to perform particular activities and to manage the interrelationships between the activities that result in a source of competitive advantage. The linkages can be flows of information, goods, and services, as well as systems and processes.1
  • Root-cause analysis – Conduct rigorous root cause analysis to determine the underlying business problem.
  • Creativity and Feasibility studies – Brainstorm to identify all potential solution options and conduct feasibility analyses (analyze technical, operational, economic, cultural, and legal feasibility) for each solution option to determine the highest-value alternative.
  • Complex project risk management – Conduct rigorous risk assessments and risk response planning. Focus on identifying and managing interdependencies to external projects, groups, organizations, and application systems.
  • Vendor partnerships – If the technology planned for use is unproven, establish a partnership with the technology vendor to assign them a significant part of the risk. Use techniques mentioned above for contractor management. Use award fees for quality and early delivery. Insist that part of the vendor’s responsibility is to offer adequate knowledge to your technology team so they’ll be able to operate and maintain the solution.
  • Rapid prototyping – Quickly build the riskiest component of a solution first to prove an idea is feasible. This is typically used to better understand requirements or to prove a concept.
  • Feature-driven development – Use when the solution can be delivered incrementally. The goal is to provide value early, implement the highest value features first, and adapt from the learnings from prior increment.
  • Technical solution dependency management and Rapid Application Development – When the technical solution is complex, it is prudent to divide the development into a core system (the operative part of the system), and special components (separate from the core, adding functionality in components). Further divide the core system into extension levels, building the foundation level first and then extending system capabilities incrementally. As the core system is developed and implemented, different technical teams work on specialized functional components. The goal is to build the specialized components with only a one-way dependency to the core system; therefore, specialized components are independent of each other and can be created in any order or even in parallel.2
  • Edge-of-chaos management – In some circumstances, when a project seems to be operating on the edge of chaos, the team is still brainstorming, creating, studying, examining ideas, and evaluating complexity and dependencies to select the most valuable, most elegant, and least complex solution. Encourage lots of experimentation and prototyping to bring the solution into focus. In rare cases, project teams design and develop more than one solution in order to prove which one is truly the optimal approach. When this “tiger-team” approach is used, the outcome can be more innovative and creative than ever imagined. So, if your team seems to be operating on the edge of chaos, it might be just the right approach!

Applying Complexity Thinking to Volatile Requirements

A significant percentage of project failures occur because of poor requirements. Defining requirements is hard—very hard. Individual requirements are seldom complex; it is the relationships and interdependencies between them that result in complexity. In addition, requirements are dynamic, changing as the business changes and as they are progressively elaborated. Techniques include:

  • Professional business analyst – Critical, complex projects need a full-time, senior business analyst (BA), and will likely need a BA team to elicit, analyze, specify, validate, and manage requirements.
  • Enterprise analysis – If thorough stakeholder and purpose analyses, problem structuring, behavior modeling, value modeling, solution structuring, concept development and selection, and architecture description are completed during the pre-project study phase, the requirement definition that is completed after project initiation is still hard, but will be significantly easier and less risky.
  • Agile development – The agile movement is flourishing because requirements are so volatile. Agile analysis is a highly iterative and incremental process, where developers and project stakeholders actively work together to understand the domain, identify what needs to be built and prioritize functionality.3 Use agile methods when these conditions are present: project value is clear; customer participates throughout the project; customer, designers, and developers are co-located; incremental feature-driven development is possible; and visual documentation (cards on the wall vs. formal documentation) is acceptable.
  • Test-driven requirements development – Build the test case before or concurrent with documenting requirements. Sometimes building the test case clarifies the requirement, or even changes it.
  • Effective scope change management – Avoid spending too much time up front. Uncover 80 percent of requirements in 20 percent of the time. Expect, plan for, and welcome changes that add value. Reduce the cost of change by using incremental development methods. Do requirements and early design concurrently and collaboratively. Remember, typically only 20% of features are used, so limit scope to the critical 20%.
  • Iteration – Iteration is the best defense against unpredictability. Use iterative approaches when defining requirements and building systems to manage changes to requirements throughout the life of the project. Determine lessons learned after each iteration with two goals: (1) to drive down the cost of change and be able to welcome change that adds value, and (2) to increase innovation.
  • Visualization and communication – Visualize and communicate requirements in the right way to the right audience. Create a blueprint (a view or conceptual model, a rich picture, often simple stick figures) of what the solution will cover. It is the starting point for defining the phasing of critical and non-critical functionality. Build prototypes and “a-day-in-the-life” scenarios. Use technology to share information, e.g., video recordings of current user operations; webcasts of business vision and rationale for change; and live, interactive usability testing.
  • Appropriate level of detail – Know what needs to be fixed (defined at the front end), and what can be flexed (defined at a summary level initially). When using purchased components, establish the goal of using the current system functionality, versus developing requirements without taking system functionality into account.
  • Interdependency management – Set up a requirements integration team to manage requirements relationships and dependencies. Identify boundaries and ensure each team knows its area of responsibility and areas of overlap. Trace requirements throughout design, construction, and test work products.
  • Define customer experience vs. product or service – It is important to design what experience you want the customer to have, vs. leaping first to the solution.

Applying Complexity Thinking to High-Visibility Strategic Projects with Multiple Stakeholder Groups

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. Executive stakeholder interrelationships cause complexity, as do unspoken management expectations. Techniques include:

  • Executive sponsorship – A project cannot exist successfully without a project sponsor. If a project doesn’t have a sponsor, it’s important to find one. Build a trusting, collaborative relationship with the sponsor, seeking mentoring and coaching, and involve the sponsor in every important decision.
  • Executive oversight – Establish a governance committee consisting of the project sponsor and key members of management impacted by the project. Build a framework for effective decision-making and project oversight, focused on realizing the project benefits, achieving strategic goals, addressing risks, managing change, and setting expectations. Steer your steering committee.
  • Political management strategy – Identify key stakeholder groups and individuals, internal or external to the project. Conduct an analysis to determine those who can influence the project, and whether they feel positively or negatively about the project. Identify the goals of the key stakeholders. Assess the political environment. Define problems, solutions, and action plans to take advantage of positive influences, and to neutralize negative ones.
  • Public relations – Find ways to promote yourself. To do so you must be genuine, competent and credible. Also, promote your project as central to and important for organizational goals and strategies.
  • Benefits management – Continually assess the value and organizational impact of the project benefits. Ensure expected benefits are specific, measurable, agreed to, realistic, and time-bound. Make certain the project has a business sponsor who is responsible and accountable for the actual benefits expected from the project. Move from C (cost) to R (revenue) focus; concentrate on customer value, wealth to the bottom line, innovation, risk reduction
  • Virtual alliance management – Strategic projects involve alliances with suppliers, customers, key political groups, regulatory entities, and even competitors. When seeking out partners, look for the best-in-class competencies to build high-quality, specific products or services in the shortest period of time.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Large-Scale Organizational Change Initiatives

Large-scale cultural 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 include:

  • A sense of urgency – After identifying key stakeholders and developing a political management strategy (see above), work with stakeholder groups to reduce complacency, fear, and anger over the change, and to increase their sense of urgency.
  • The guiding team – Using some of the same techniques mentioned above, build a team of supporters who have the credibility, skills, connections, reputations, and formal authority to provide necessary leadership.
  • The vision – Use the guiding team to develop a clear, simple, compelling vision, and set of strategies to achieve the vision.
  • Communication for buy-in – Execute a simple, straight-forward communication plan using forceful and convincing messages sent through many channels. Use the guiding team to promote the vision whenever possible.
  • Empowerment for action – Use the guiding team to remove barriers to change, including disempowering management styles, antiquated business processes, and inadequate information.
  • Short-term wins – Wins create enthusiasm and momentum. Plan the delivery to achieve early successes.
  • Cross-project dependency management – When the project is dependent on major deliverables from other projects currently underway within the organization, the core project team should identify and manage such deliverables. Assign someone from a core program team as the dependency owner, to liaise with the team creating the deliverable. A best practice is for dependency owners to attend team meetings of the dependent project, so as to demonstrate the importance of the dependency and to hear status updates first hand.4

Applying Complexity Thinking to Manage Projects with Significant Risks, Dependencies, and External Constraints

The concepts of risk and uncertainty are often used interchangeably in the context of complex projects, but it is important to distinguish between them. A risk is an uncertain event that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project. A risk may or may not occur. In the context of complex projects, an uncertainty, in contrast, is a present reality. Complex projects are riddled with uncertainty. Although conventional project management wisdom tells us to resolve all uncertainties before project execution, this is usually not feasible, especially on a complex project. So we must learn how to make progress in the midst of uncertainty. Risk management involves planning to accommodate future events that may or may not happen. Uncertainty management is the proactive effort to make sense of the project and reduce ambiguity in the present. Techniques include:

  • Managing Risks. Even though the process is well defined in many sources, risk management is one of the most neglected aspects of managing complex projects. Most project managers simply do not perform rigorous risk management on their projects. For complex projects, however, risk management is not an option—it is essential.
  • Managing Uncertainties. To manage uncertainty is to make sense of the current situation. Only when we understand the origins of the uncertainty, and attempt to identify patterns, can we determine the appropriate way forward? Sophisticated project leadership teams often use simulation and probability techniques to predict results in uncertain circumstances and to reduce sensitivity to random variability.
  • Managing Dependencies and External Constraints. Large-scale organizational change alters much about the environment for many different groups across the enterprise. A change in one functional area may have unwanted consequences in another. In addition, a major transformation project is often dependent on key deliverables from other projects currently underway within the organization or from outsourced components of the solution. Recommendations for managing dependencies and external constraints include:
    • Identify intergroup and cross-project dependencies.
    • Assign ownership to dependencies.
    • Manage your project in the midst of changes in your IT environment.
    • Use edge-of-chaos management to adapt to changes in the external environment.

The most difficult part of dependency management is identifying the dependencies. Interrelationships across functional groups are often invisible and difficult to predict and define. Business analysis practices that analyze the value chain and develop functional and process models are designed to make these dependencies visible. As the processes and functions change, new dependencies will emerge and existing dependencies might need to adapt. The core project leadership team needs to spend a great deal of time and effort continually monitoring and adapting its dependency management strategy as the organizational changes take place. Intergroup dependencies might be among people, information exchanges, policies, business rules, functions, processes, IT application systems—virtually anywhere across the enterprise. As these dependencies are identified, use visualization techniques to literally map the interdependent processes in simple pictures. Review and refine often as more is learned. Make key decisions with the dependencies in mind.

In addition to changes in your IT environment, your team is likely to experience events and changes both within and external to your organization that will impact your project. These may include:

  • Changes to the regulatory environment that constrain your decisions and pose new requirements,
  • Changes in the business environment that pose new interrelationships, dependencies, and perhaps new requirements, such as mergers and acquisitions,
  • Changes in the competitive environment that establish new interrelationships and dependencies, which may also impose new constraints or requirements, and
  • Changes in zoning or building codes (for projects that involve construction).

These external constraints and dependencies require vigilance by the core leadership team to identify, assign ownership, adapt as changes occur, and rigorously manage each constraint or dependency so that it does not hinder progress.

  • Complex Outsourced Projects. Outsourced projects are by their very nature risky. The project leader and team must direct special attention to ensuring that the outsource partner understands requirements and is amenable to requirements changes as needed. Establish positive supplier partnerships, create an integrated project management team, and establish a framework for managing outsourced projects. In essence, treat the outsourced team as if they were a part of your organization, because they are.
  • Supplier Partnerships. Positive supplier partnerships are crucial if we are to adjust as we learn, adapt as our environment changes, and manage project complexities. Seek out suppliers who are focused on quality and who routinely establish positive partnerships with their customers. Together, perform value-chain analysis, from the subcontractors to the prime supplier to your organization, through to the customers of your business. Ensure that all along the way on the value chain, everyone is focused on their requirements and the quality of their products and services. Review and adjust the value change processes as the project progresses and learning occurs.
  • Create an Integrated Project Management Team. Establish a small, integrated “tiger team” consisting of key members of the core team, the supplier and major subcontractors, and the business. Involve all parties in the requirements elicitation, analysis, and specification activities so that they share a common understanding of the requirements themselves as well as the requirements management process. Schedule frequent feedback sessions where supplier and subcontractor representatives provide business representatives with prototypes, models, and increments of the solution for their review, feedback, and validation. Manage the suppliers and subcontractors as trusted partners.

Applying Complexity Thinking to Projects with a High Level of IT Complexity

Thought leaders in the IT industry suggest that radical new approaches are required to build complex adaptive products and business solutions. We offer these up-and-coming management approaches to foster innovation and customer empowerment.

  • 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 architect is seasoned
  • Forge new partnerships
  • Set up integration teams
  • Strike the right balance between discipline and agility

Final Words

Organizations depend on successful projects to sustain or seize competitive advantage, and ultimately achieve their strategies. Managing projects in highly competitive and changing circumstances requires us to understand complexity thinking and put it into practice. Traditional project management techniques are based on our desire to decompose work into simple, easily managed components. Yet sometimes, more creative solutions emerge from teams operating on the edge of chaos. The trick is to know when to apply traditional project management techniques, and when to live on the edge. Complexity thinking enables project managers and business analysts to learn to diagnose the dimensions of complexity present in a project, and then, to apply appropriate management techniques.

This chapter 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.

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. Online at: (ACCESSED JULY 2015).
Kotter, John P. (2002). Getting to the Heart of How to Make Change Happen. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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

hasspt2 1
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.


hasspt2 2
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.

hasspt2 3
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.

hasspt2 4
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.

hasspt 5

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.

hasspt 6

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.

Living on the Edge: Managing Project Complexity

What is it in the 21st Century that makes projects so difficult?

These are tumultuous times. Businesses are faced with unprecedented challenges in the hyper-connected 21st-century global economy.

Extraordinary gale-force winds of change are swirling faster than ever, causing us to rethink our approach to business, project, and performance management models.

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].

In Part 1 of the series, we discuss the nature of business complexity in the 21st Century. We then present a new model to diagnose and manage project complexity.

Hass aug1

Exhibit 1.0 – The 21st Century

The Integrated Economy

Everyone is feeling the effects of the globally integrated economy. Many jobs are becoming commoditized; they can be performed by internal resources, contractors, or even outsourced resources located anywhere across the globe. Global wage scales have made U.S. employees too expensive to perform standard, repetitive tasks. Many U.S. jobs are gone and not coming back. For these reasons, basic tasks are beginning to be outsourced or performed by contractors.

The Technology and Information Explosion

IT applications have also impacted global jobs by automating repetitive activities, often increasing the quality and predictability of outcomes. Smart IT applications are replacing knowledge workers across industries. The demand for new, innovative apps delivered quickly is making traditional requirements and development methods obsolete.

Convergence of Digital, Social and Mobile Spheres

Social/mobile media has connected us all in obvious and subtle ways, some of which we don’t yet fully understand; and new applications emerge that we can’t even imagine until they reach us. As we see across the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, people are using social media to bring about major changes to social and political systems. Project teams are using social media to enhance collaboration among key stakeholders across the globe.

Innovation vs. Business as Usual

The call to action for today’s businesses is ‘innovate or vanish’. For businesses to be competitive, they must be first to market with innovative, leading-edge products and services that are intuitive, easy to use, and offer surprising new features. It is no longer enough to ask business partners and customers what they want or need. Project teams must foster creativity and innovation during their working sessions, continually asking the question: ‘Are we truly innovating?’

Business Value Realization

Businesses cannot afford to waste project investments or precious resource time unless there are significant business benefits in terms of innovation, value to the customer, and wealth to the bottom line. 21st-century project leaders understand the business value proposition and focus on value throughout the project. Business visionaries work with business analysts and project managers to develop release plans prioritized based on business benefits to deliver value early and often.

Project Performance

With business success riding on innovation and first-to-market speed, we must be able to deliver new products and business capabilities that meet benchmarks for time, cost, and, value. However, according to the CHAOS Manifesto 2015 by the Standish Group, technology-enabled business change initiatives are only 29 percent successful, as measured by on time, on budget, and with satisfactory resultsi. This comes at considerable cost according to Roger Sessions, the world’s leading expert in IT Complexity Analytics: real sunk costs and the price of lost opportunity is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion per yearii.

The 21st Century Challenges us to Change

As we are struggling to bring about positive change within our companies, and our companies are struggling with the challenges of the new economy, the nation states where our companies operate are under immense pressure to build and sustain the fundamental elements of a thriving economic culture. These involve investment in several major areas: education – to ensure the availability of a skilled workforce; immigration – to reach across the world for the best minds; infrastructure – to provide the basic services for your family and your company to operate effectively and efficiently including clean air and water, health care, transportation; rules and regulations – to provide an environment of fairness; research and development – to continue to innovate and create; business development – to coordinate education and training with the jobs that are needed for a thriving economy; and community development – to build and sustain healthy communities including integration of all of the abovementioned elements. In the developed nations of the world, investment in these fundamentals has fallen drasticallyiii. Projects are emerging at every turn to build, rebuild and advance these fundamental elements of a thriving society. The result is constant change and immense complexity for individuals, families, companies, communities, states and nations.

hass aug2

Exhibit 2.0 – The 21st Century Challenges us to Change

The Onslaught of Complexity

All of these forces are influenced by the unrelenting change and unprecedented complexity that exists at all levels, globally, nationally, locally, and within projects. With complexity comes dynamic, unpredictable, adaptive change. Since projects are complex adaptive systems operating within a complex environment, typical plan-based project and requirements management practices are insufficient when attempting to bring about speed and innovation in the face of complexity. Since we are in a new, technology-driven world, virtually all business projects are now dependent on information technology (IT), and all companies are technology companies. And new technologies are complex by their very nature.

Breakthrough Practices for the 21st Century

So what does all this have to do with risk? The root cause of our dismal project performance is twofold, gaps in two breakthrough practices, value-based Enterprise Business Analysis so that we make decisions based on value, and innovation-based Complex Project Management so that we manage and leverage complexity. Both of these relatively new disciplines are emerging to address our 21st-century project challenges. In other publications, this author has delved into enterprise business analysisiv. In this chapter, we define the need for and a repeatable, easy-to-use implement approach for building a breakthrough complex project management practice within your organization.

Business managers, project managers, and business analysts must and will become visionaries, innovators, strategists, and transformational leaders, executing strategy through project outcomes. Successful business teams will learn how to embrace organizational values, empower their teams to thrive, bring customers into the change process, and drive innovation through collaboration, creativity, design principles, and global partnerships. Don’t blink, or you may miss out on this exciting business experiment.

Project Management is becoming a dynamic, self-improving discipline to meet the energizing new challenges and opportunities ahead. We need to change the way we do projects to achieve faster time to market and deliver innovative solutions that add value to the customer and wealth to the organization. Only then will we be contributing to a sustained competitive advantage for our organizations.

Traditional project jobs are going away and are not coming back. Tools are growing up, and typical project tasks are being automated and commoditized. Instead of being regarded as project managers, business analysts, or technologists, individuals are being sought out to focus on strategy, value, creativity, innovation, complexity – in a word, leadership.

Complexity Management

Complexity is a concept that is difficult to define. You sort of know it when you see it. Some say complexity is the opposite of simplicity; others say complicated is the opposite of simple, while complex is the opposite of independent. A complex structure is said to use interwoven components that introduce mutual dependencies and produce more than a sum of their parts. In today’s systems, this is the difference between a myriad of connecting “stovepipes” and an effective set of “integrated” solutionsv. A complex system can also be described as one in which there are multiple interactions between many different components . In the context of a design that is difficult to understand or implement, complexity is the quality of being intricate and compoundedvii.

Complexity is everywhere. In the twenty-first century, business processes have become more complex; i.e., more interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated than ever before. In addition, businesses today are rejecting traditional management structures to create complex organizational communities comprised of alliances with strategic suppliers, networks of customers, and partnerships with key political groups, regulatory entities, and even competitors. Through these alliances, organizations are addressing the pressures of unprecedented change, global competition, time-to-market compression, rapidly changing technologies, and yes, increasing complexity. As a result, business and government enterprises are significantly more complex than in the past; and the projects that implement new solutions are more complex. Huge cost and schedule overruns are commonplace. To reap the rewards of significant, large-scale business/technology change projects designed to not only keep organizations in the game but make them a major player, we must find new ways to manage project complexity.

There are many different ways projects can become both complicated and complex. The business problem might be difficult to define. The solution may be elusive and difficult to determine, describe, visualize or grasp. Business boundaries might be unclear. Business process relationships are likely to be non-linear and contain multiple feedback loops. Today’s complex business systems will change constantly, and therefore need to be dynamic, adaptive, and flexible. Some business systems are nested; i.e., the components of the system may themselves be complex. There are a number of dimensions of project complexity, including team size and composition, project duration, schedule, cost and scope flexibility, clarity of the problem and solution, stability of requirements, strategic importance, level of organizational change, inter-project dependencies, political sensitivity, and unproven technology.

Managing Project Complexity – A New Model

The Project Complexity Model presented here is used to evaluate project size, complexity, and risk and determine the specific dimensions of complexity that are present on a project. The project complexity model describes the project characteristics in terms of complexity dimensions for projects that are (1) small, independent, and low risk, (2) medium-sized with moderate complexity and risk, (3) large, with high complexity and risk, and (4) breakthrough innovative initiatives employing concepts and engineering techniques that have never been used. Note: characteristics for each level of complexity may be customized for a specific industry, sector, or other variables.

hass table

Exhibit 3.0 – Project Complexity ModeNote: if you would like a copy of the project complexity model, please request by emailing the author at [email protected].

i. Hastie, Shane and Wojewoda, Stephane (2015). Standish Group 2015 Chaos Report – Q&A with Jennifer Lynch. ONLINE AT:, (ACCESSED JULY 2015).
ii. Sessions, Roger (2009). The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger and Opportunity. Online at:, (ACCESSED JULY 2015).
iv. Hass, Kathleen (2011). The Enterprise Business Analyst, Developing Creative Solutions to Complex Business Problems. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, Inc.
v. Lissack, Michael R., Roos, Johan. (2002) The Next Common Sense, The e-Manager’s Guide to Mastering Complexity. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
vi. Rind, D. (2 April 1999), Complexity and Climate, Science Magazine, Complex Systems Special Issue, 2 April 1999: Vol. 284. no. 5411, pp. 105 – 107.
vii. 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.

The Future is Now: The 21st Century Enterprise Project Manager


Project Management is a relatively old profession. Some say it is not really a profession, but more of a line of work or collection of activities. Others say it is a discipline, a business practice that is somewhat challenged in the complex world of business.


20th century project management has been a mostly tactical endeavor, focusing mostly on the technical tools of the trade such as work breakdown schedules, earned value, and Gantt charts to gauge progress. Program and Portfolio Management are practiced in most organizations but are experiencing difficulties achieving optimal performance. Project Management Offices (PMOs) have come and gone regularly because it is difficult to demonstrate the value of the group.


In the early days of project management, and indeed, too often even today, success is measured in terms of on time, on budget, and on scope metrics. As a result, there is little focus on the business benefits that are delivered, in terms of value to the customer and wealth to the bottom line.hass July8 IMG02


So, let’s examine how well we perform on projects using these measures. Certainly, project management has improved over the last few decades. In the early 1990’s, projects were successful according to the on-time, on-scope, on-budget model only about 15% of the time. As we progress through the first years of the 21st century, we have raised that success rate to 39%. But this is still woefully inadequate, as you can see by the following graphic.hass July8 IMG03

It is clear, the call to action is that we need to transform project management practices fast to meet the challenges of the 21st century. While some project managers work at the strategic level today driving business value, the focus of the vast majority of the PM practitioners has been mostly:

  • Management vs. Leadership
  • Tactical orientation vs. systems thinking
  • Project and requirements management vs. complexity management
  • Linear vs. adaptive
  • Business as usual vs. innovation
  • Project outcomes vs. business/customer value


The 21st century challenges us to change the way we initiate and manage change in our organizations. Traditional jobs are changing. PMs are partnering with business analysts to drive value through projects. BAs are focusing on strategy, innovation, value vs. requirements management. Project managers are focusing on creativity, complexity management, continuous delivery, project ROI vs. project schedule, budget, scope.hass July8 IMG04

Organizations cannot find the talent they need to negotiate the constant change and unrelenting complexities of the 21st century. They need critical thinkers with the ability to adapt, invent, and reinvent. Collaborate, create, and innovate. Understand and leverage the complexities to harness creativity.

To remain competitive in these challenging times, CIOs realize the PM and BA partnership is at the heart of future success. CIOs appreciate that value-focused PMs and BAs are in demand and will play a critical role in the future, but not the type of PMs and BAs we have today. And so, CIOs are rebuilding the PM and BA roles. CIOs around the globe are mining their resources to find experienced and solutions focused IT and business professionals who are ready and willing to step into the leadership role of the Enterprise Project Leader moving from a tactical focus to a strategic solution focus.i

hass July8 IMG05


Project management and business analysis are transforming themselves before our very eyes to create better business outcomes. Some refer to it as ‘Breakthrough Project Management.’ The idea of the enterprise business analyst (EBA) and enterprise project manager (EPM) partnership is coming into its own. The focus is clear: it’s all about value.

While traditional approaches to PM and BA are still effective for low to moderately complex projects, they will often be used in very different ways. Project requirements and plans will be leaner, more visual, and updated iteratively as more is learned. Teams will welcome change that add value. Projects will be simpler, smaller, and more manageable, with fewer features. Project success will be measured in terms of value to the customer and wealth to the bottom line.hass July8 IMG06


The PM and BA will not be alone in their leadership roles. Key project leaders in multiple areas will share the leadership of the project and will be fully accountable for project performance.hass July8 IMG07


PMs and BAs think about the project phases differently. PMs think in terms of initiation, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing. While BAs think in terms of the traditional product development lifecycle: requirements, design, construct, test, deploy, and maintain. Indeed, the new Agile approach to projects is altering both approaches.hass July8 IMG08


The mantra today is innovate or evaporate. The new collaborative model of project leadership fosters creativity and innovation – the lifeblood of organizational survival.hass July8 IMG09


While not all change initiatives are complex, it is clear that the world is changing rapidly, technology advances are fast and furious, and businesses need to continually innovate. If we are not bringing about value, we should question the need for the initiative.

While moderately complex projects will still need traditional PM and BA practices focusing on requirements definition and project management, low complexity will become scarce as we transgress through the 21st century. Traditional practices work when not dealing with complexity, but are deficient when managing complex enterprise change initiatives.

Enterprise PMs and BAs focus on continuous delivery of business value and innovation. EPMs/EBAs understand the holistic nature of change; transformational change requires attention to people, process, organizations, rules, data, applications, and technologies to make up a transformational business practice. The EPM/EBA embrace business architecture and deliberate design to help temper project failure.

Realizing that a holistic view of change is both an art and a science, the EPM/EBA partners strike a balance between analysis and intuition; order and disruptive change. Decision making is collaborative. Thinking is global, all-inclusive, strategic. Complexity is leveraged to achieve creativity. Leadership is shared, diverse, expert. Teams are collaborative and high performing. Methods are adaptive, creative, agile, visual. Solutions are innovative, competitive, and sometimes unsettling and disruptive. Value is delivered early and often.

Breakthrough project practices produce groundbreaking results. It requires different thinking and new practices and systems.

Business as Usual Business Accelerated
3-5 year roadmap Create a system of engagement
Big, feature-rich updates Go to market faster, smaller feature sets. Iterate with fast feedback loops
Control changes Welcome changes that add value. Reduce the cost of change thru iteration
Short-term focus A long-term vision of products
Quality means fewer defects Quality means customer is delighted and loyal
Deliver what they asked for yesterday Deliver what they really need tomorrow
Hard costs count Realize the cost of lost opportunities
Use agile to do the wrong things faster Use the right method for the right product
Track changes for CYA Track changes to see where the threads lead


The project success criteria need to be changed to include the concept of value, wealth, and business benefits as well and innovation and creativity.hass July8 IMG11


One of the reasons the role and capabilities of the enterprise PM/BA is difficult to describe is that it is a very complex function with many variants.  The Generalist wears many hats, from strategy analyst to business relationship manager.  Whereas the specialist may focus on business architecture or business process management.  At the same time, they are often business domain experts so that they understand and are authorities in both the business domain and the technology supporting the business.  Mostly all focus on business/technology optimization, staying current on the latest technological advances and incorporating them into the IT suite of offerings.
hass July8 IMG12

hass July8 IMG13

The future is now. It is an exciting time to be an enterprise leader of change. The opportunity to bring about value to society and competitive edge to your organization is at hand. Don’t miss out.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs
Better, Smarter, Faster: Accelerating Innovation Across the Enterprise, 2013, Jama Software, Inc.

How to Manage the Complexities of Large, Diverse Project Teams

LargeDiverseTeams1The Good, the Bad and the Complex

In earlier articles in the Complex Project Management, series, we introduced the topic and discussed Complex Project Management (CPM) evolution and trends, and we presented the new, validated project complexity model.  The model consists of nine complexity dimensions that may (and often do) exist on highly complex projects and programs.  In this and subsequent articles we will discuss each complexity dimension in detail. 

This article considers the unique complexities of projects with large, diverse and often virtual teams that pose challenges to project success, and offers both old and new management strategies to handle the complexities.  Refer to Table 1: Team Composition Complexity Profile to examine the nature of these project characteristics as team complexity dimensions increase. 

Complexity Dimension: Team Composition

Independent Project PM: competent, experienced
Team: internal; worked together in past
Methodology: defined, proven
Moderately Complex Project PM: competent, inexperienced
Team: internal and external, worked together in past
Methodology: defined, unproven
Contracts: straightforward
Contractor Past Performance: good
Highly Complex Projects PM: competent; poor/no experience with complex projects
Team: internal and external, have not worked together in past
Methodology: somewhat defined, diverse
Contracts: complex
Contractor Past Performance: unknown
Highly Complex Program
“Mega Project”
PM: competent, poor/no experience with megaprojects
Team: complex structure of varying competencies and performance records (e.g., contractor, virtual, culturally diverse, outsourced teams)
Methodology: undefined, diverse Contracts: highly complex
Contractor Past Performance: poor

Table 1: Team Composition and Past Performance Complexity Profile 

Great teams, like all great organizations, are those that make a distinctive impact and deliver superior performance over a long period of time.[i]  For a project, performance is typically measured in terms of on time, under budget, with full scope of features, meeting quality specifications, and delivering the business benefit that was expected.  Project teams do not need to be big to be great…big does not equal great.  But all too often contemporary project teams are too large, too dispersed, too diverse, and just plain too complex to manage using typical project management techniques alone.  So how can we be successful when a project demands complex teams?  Success in the 21st century demands that we acquire new competencies to form, manage, and use large, diverse teams as a competitive advantage.

The Good:  Great Teams are Powerful – Very Powerful

Transformational projects in the 21st century almost always involve multiple forms and types of teams. Applying the effective team management practices to diverse groups at the right time is in itself a complex endeavor. Successful teams are the result of many elements coming together, including adaptive team leadership, optimal team structure, just the right team composition, a disciplined culture, co-location of core team leaders, effective collaboration, communication, and coordination, and patience to steer the groups as each evolves from a collection of people, into a good team, and finally into a great team.

Since projects involving significant change in the way business is conducted are almost certain to involve complex team structures, it is not unusual for project teams to have sponsors, customers, architects, and developers sprinkled around the globe.  It is too expensive, and simply too exhausting, to continually travel around the world to meet with team members in person.  To reap the rewards of significant changes to optimize business and technology, we must find new ways to manage complex teams, complementing face-to-face sessions with robust virtual exchanges[ii].

The demands of the twenty-first century are requiring businesses to reject traditional “command and control” management structures and reach out into the virtual and physical world to create innovative approaches to team composition.  To remain competitive, companies are establishing inventive, but also complex, organizational communities.  These alliances may be with strategic suppliers, networks of customers, and win-win partnerships with key political groups, regulatory entities, and yes, even with competitors.  Through these inventive alliances, which manifest themselves in both physical and virtual models, organizations are addressing the pressures of unprecedented change, global competition, time-to-market compression, rapidly changing technologies, and increasing business and technological complexity.   

Geographical diver­sity and dependency on technology for communication and collaboration dramatically magnify the challenges of leading teams.  Applying the appro­priate team management techniques to multiple parties at the right time is a complex endeavor.  The project leadership role becomes as much about team leadership and group development, as about project and requirements management.

We will first explore the nature of the complexities that come into play when managing complex teams with dissimilar cultural norms, complicated contractual agreements, and multiple methodologies, including:

  • Teams as complex adaptive systems
  • Interactional uncertainty
  • Integration challenges

We then examine the use of sophisticated team management techniques, while at the same time establishing an environment of adaptability, innovation, and creativity.  Areas that will be examined include:

  • Leveraging team potential
  • Becoming a team leader
  • Using team collaboration, communication and coordination tools and techniques.

The Bad: Teams are Difficult to Manage – Very Difficult

There are many complexities that come into play when managing complex teams with dissimilar cultural norms, complicated contractual agreements, and multiple methodologies.  Here, we explore just a few.

Teams as Complex Adaptive Systems

As complexity science teaches us, human behaviour is complex because humans are always reacting to their environment, and therefore human activity is impossible to predict.  In addition, teams are complex adaptive systems within the larger program; the program is also a complex adaptive system operating within a complex adaptive organization; the organization is trying to succeed (by changing and adapting) within a complex adaptive global economy. As a leader of a new complex project or program, you cannot predict how your team members will react to each other, to the project requirements, and to their place within the program and the larger organization. So, complex team leadership is hard, very hard.  Stop thinking of yourself as a project or program manager, and begin to hone your team leadership skills, for you are now managing through teams.  When managing a complex project, you are a team leader, not a project manager.

Interactional Uncertainty

At first glance, it appears that team members who have worked together in the past will evolve into a high performing team quickly.  However, they may have baggage and bring biases or resentments toward one another to the new team. Whereas, team members who have not yet worked together are likely to hold back until they learn about each other, the team dynamics, the task at hand, and their expected role and responsibility. This concept, referred to as “interactional uncertainty,”[iii] recognizes that if there is uncertainty in a relationship, the participants will tend to withhold information and calculate the effects of sharing information. The project leadership team must guide members through the inevitable early stages of team growth toward “interactional certainty” that leads to trust. Then, team members can focus their energies on positive interactions.  When working in a virtual environment, it is very challenging to establish a trusting environment, achieve “interactional certainty” and therefore, foster trusting relationships.

Integration Challenges

Working with many disparate teams almost always leads to integration issues, making it difficult to amalgamate interdependent solution components that have been designed and constructed by different teams.  Teams often use dissimilar procedures, practices, and tools which results in work products of varying quality and consistency.  Finally, deficiencies in many project management techniques, e.g., risk management and complexity management can lead to unknown consequences requiring rework to resolve.

The Complex: Great Teams are Complex, Very Complex

To lead complex layers of teams, project leaders must leverage the potential of teams, master team leadership, and learn to use sophisticated collaboration, communication, and coordination systems.

Teams are a critical asset used to improve performance in all kinds of organizations. Yet today’s business leaders consistently overlook opportunities to exploit their potential, confusing teams with teamwork, empowerment, or participative management.2  We simply cannot meet 21st century challenges, from business transformation to innovation to global competition, without understanding and leveraging the power and wisdom of teams. 

Leverage the power of teams to achieve results unavailable to individuals

“Teams help ordinary people achieve extraordinary results.”

—W.H. Murray, Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Successful complex project managers appreciate the power of teams. Success stories abound: Motorola surpassed the Japanese in the battle to dominate the cell phone market by using teams as a competitive advantage; 3M uses teams to reach its goal of generating half of each year’s revenues from the previous five years’ innovations. High-performing teams are all around us: U. S. Navy Seals, tiger teams established to perform a special mission or attack a difficult problem, paramedic teams, fire fighter teams, surgical teams, symphony orchestras, and professional sports teams. These teams demonstrate their accomplishments, insights, and enthusiasm on a daily basis and are a persuasive testament to the power of teams. Clearly, we must learn how to form, develop, and sustain high-performing teams if we are to deliver on complex projects.  Teams are powerful.  Use your teams to achieve exceptional results!

Harness the wisdom of teams to get great people to get great results

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”

—Ken Blanchard, Consultant, Speaker, Trainer, Author

Warren Bennis talks about team members who along the way provide support and camaraderie for each other. Foster these characteristics in your teams described by Bennis: 3

  • They have a shared dream.
  • They abandon individual egos for the pursuit of the dream.
  • They are isolated and protected from political influences.
  • They are united against a real or imagined enemy.
  • They view themselves as winning underdogs.
  • They are willing to pay a personal price.
  • They are strong leaders.
  • They are the product of meticulous recruiting.
  • They deliver the goods.

The successful complex project managers strive to understand the benefits of teams and learn how to optimize team performance by developing individual members, fostering team cohesiveness, and rewarding team results. Since teams are the primary building blocks of strong organizational performance, complex project managers cannot ignore the power and wisdom of teams.5

Exceptional team leadership leads to exceptional results.  So how do we groom ourselves to become exceptional team leaders?  There are a few “must haves” including experience, team development and nurturing, exceptional team composition, and an optimal team structure.

There is no substitute for experience

Projects fail because of people, not science or technology. Team leadership differs significantly from traditional management, just as teams differ from operational work groups. The complex project manager leads through others; it is those “others” who actually manage the project. Team leadership is more of an art than a science and is fraught with trial, error, and experience. Expertise in communications, problem-solving, and conflict resolution and other so-called “soft skills” are essential. Leaders of complex projects derive their power and influence not so much from a position of authority in the organizational hierarchy, but as a result of their ability to build relationships. These leaders must be expert, influential, well-connected, held in high regard, indeed, considered indispensable.

Learn how to build and nurture your team

Leaders of complex teams must have an understanding of the dynamics of team development and how teams work; they develop specialized skills that they use to build and sustain high performance. Traditional managers and technical experts cannot necessarily become effective team leaders without the appropriate mindset, training, and coaching.  Make a concerted effort to develop team-leadership skills and dedicate considerable energy to transition your team members into a cohesive team with shared values, beliefs, and an ethical cultural foundation. The best teams are collaborative and share the leadership role, depending on the precise needs of the project at any given time. The situational team leader understands that varying leadership styles are appropriate depending on the different stages of team

Get the “right stuff” on your team – recruit meticulously

Selecting the right members for your team is perhaps the most important decision you will ever make.  When you enlist team members, do so not only based on their knowledge and skills, but also because they are passionate, strategic thinkers who thrive in a challenging, collaborative environment. Conventional wisdom tells us to determine what needs to be done first and then select the appropriate person who has the knowledge and skills required to do it. However, in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins emphatically tells us: first who . . .then what. Rather than setting a direction, a vision, and a strategy for your project and then getting people committed and aligned, Collins and his research team found that great companies did just the opposite: They first selected the people who had the “right stuff” and then collaboratively set their course.9

Establish an optimal team structure

Structure matters! Typical contemporary team structures suggested by gurus like Jim Highsmith[iv] and Jim Collins[v] include:

  • A core team or “hub” structure. This structure reflects aspects of both hierarchical and network structures. This model is often comprised of several customer teams, numerous feature teams, an architecture team, a verification and validation team, and a project management team. Teams take on all possible configurations: virtual, co-located, or a combination thereof.
  • Self-organization extensions. As the number of teams within the project expands, the organizational structure transitions from a team framework to a project framework within which multiple teams operate. Creating a self-organizing team framework involves: (1) getting the right leaders, (2) communicating the work breakdown and integration strategies, (3) encouraging interaction and information flow between teams, and (4) framing project-wide decision-making. Obviously, as more teams are formed, complexity increases. Managing inter-team dependencies is critical; teams need to fully understand their boundaries and their interdependencies.
  • A culture of empowerment and discipline. Behaviors required of teams when working in this structure include: (1) accept accountability for team results, (2) engage collaboratively with other teams, (3) work within the project organization framework, and (4) balance project goals with team goals.

For effective team collaboration, communication, and coordination of complex team structures, consider the following practices:

  • A standard methodology 
  • Collaborative planning and decision making 
  • State-of-the-art collaboration tools 

A standard methodology fosters discipline and facilitates communication

For complex projects, using a standard methodology—while encouraging each team to tailor it as needed—goes a long way toward eliminating unknown cross-team dependencies.  However, a word of caution: Do not overly burden the various teams with standards, but do insist on those that are needed to provide a realistic view of the overall project and to manage cross-team dependencies. Enforce the use of standard collaboration procedures, practices, and tools.

Collaborative planning and decision making promotes commitment

Involve all core team members in the project planning process and seek feedback often to continually improve the performance of the team. There is no substitute for face-to-face working sessions during planning meetings, especially for brainstorming, innovating, analysing feasibility of potential solutions, scoping, scheduling, identifying risks and dependencies, and conducting critical control-gate reviews. When preparing your project budget, be sure to include adequate time and budget to bring core team members together for these critical sessions.  Be firm about establishing decision checkpoints that involve all core project team members at critical junctures.

State-of-the-art collaboration tools facilitate consensus

Secure best-in-class software tools to enable collaboration and document-sharing. Two general types of collaboration tools are available: professional service automation (PSA), which is designed to optimize service engagements; and enterprise project management (EPM) tool suites, which are used to manage multiple projects.

In addition, provide your team members with personal communication and telecommunications tools so that they feel closely tied and connected. If these tools are an unconventional expense item for projects in your organizational culture, educate your project sponsor on the criticality of collaboration, stressing the need to manage the cross-project interdependencies that are known at the start of the project, as well as those that will emerge along the way.  Also, experiment with social networks and communities.  This computer-mediated communication has become very popular with sites like MySpace and YouTube and has resulted in large user bases and billion-dollar purchases of the software and their communities by large corporations.


So there you have it: the good, the bad, and the complex of 21st century teams.  There is no stopping a great team. However, great teams do not happen by accident. Hard work, planning, and disciplined effort are required to convert a group of great people into a great team. For complex projects the effort is magnified because multiple large, geographically dispersed, and culturally diverse teams are involved. Leaders of complex projects cease to be project managers and become leaders of teams. Both conventional and adaptive approaches are needed for large, long-duration projects to be successful (Table 2).

Managing Large, Dispersed, Culturally Diverse Project Teams

  • 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
Management Approaches
  • Adaptive
    • Establish an experienced core leadership team
    • Leverage the power of teams
    • Build great teams
    • Use edge-of-chaos management when innovating and experimenting
    • Empower agile teams
    • Instil teams with a culture of discipline
    • Use virtual teams as a strategic asset
    • Insist on face-to-face meetings for key planning and decision-making


    • Lead, don’t manage contractor teams.
    • Insist on standard procedures and tools when appropriate.

    Establish a culture of collaboration and open communication.

Table 2: Approaches for Managing the Complexities of Large, Dispersed, Diverse Teams

Adapted with permission from Managing Complex Projects, A New Model, by Kathleen B. Hass. ©2009 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Kathleen B. (Kitty) Hass, PMP, is an Award Winning Author, Consultant, Facilitator, and Presenter, an IIBA Board of Director and Chair of the IIBA Chapter Governance Committee and Chapter Council. Kitty is the president of Kathleen Hass and Associates, Inc., a practice specializing in business analysis, complex project management, and strategy execution. Download free information about business analysis at or contact her directly at [email protected].

[i] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Why Some Companies make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.)
[ii] See Use Virtual Teams as a Competitive Advantage, by Kathleen Hass in the March issue of the IIBA Newsletter.
[iii] Christian Jensen, Staffan Johansson, and Mikael Lofstrom, Project Relationships – A Model for Analyzing Interactional Uncertainty  (International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2006) 4-12.
[iv] Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2004), 235-251
[v] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Why Some Companies make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.)