Written by Kerri Hale
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New York City is revered for its magnificent skyline and impressive buildings. Yet, nothing captivates picture-snapping tourists quite like the Empire State Building.
An American cultural icon, New York’s 3rd tallest structure has been featured in more than 250 movies and television shows, boasts 102 floors, multiple observation decks and a three-story high lobby. An architectural symbol of New York, the Empire State Building is instantly memorable.
Aesthetics aside, America’s favorite building is admired for another reason—speed and proficiency in how it was constructed. Enviable even today by modern engineering and building standards, the Empire State Building was completed in 410 days—two weeks ahead of schedule and nearly $20 million under budget. Project success has been attributed to many things: just-in-time delivery, a railway system to move materials around the site, cooperation between architects and engineers, smart planning, quick problem-solving and keen organizational skills. To give you an idea of size, consider that it’s construction included approximately 7 million man-hours and over 10 million bricks.
Today, 88 years after construction ended, the Empire State Building is still referenced as a case study for success. Yet, the evolution of project management continues. Despite years of innovation and new technologies, project portfolio managers still struggle to lead complex projects that do what they set out to do—achieve the expected business goals. Bent Flyvbjerg, Professor at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, published in 2009 substantial evidence that technology and an increase in the size of a project directly correlates with poor outcomes; in cost overruns, time, and the cost of delays as a proportion to the total budget.
While not all projects are complex, identifying the elements and processes that contribute to complexity help us understand why too many complex projects fail, and how to more effectively manage complexity. So, what defines a complex project, how do you recognize when you’re in one, and what does successful complex project management look like?
Complicated Projects Are Not Necessarily Complex Projects
Many projects are difficult. Most are complicated. Challenges arise from any number of things, from budget constraints to conflicting viewpoints, scheduling or performance issues—difficulties that make a project complicated. But, complicated projects are not necessarily complex projects.
Complex projects are unique. They’re characterized by a degree of uncertainty— known plus unknowable interdependencies involving multiple teams and stakeholders. Generally, once a project reaches a critical size, timeframe, level of ambiguity and interconnectedness—once it becomes complex—traditional management approaches rapidly deteriorate in effectiveness.
Uncertainty and Unknown Dependencies. Complex projects have a high level of uncertainty and unknown dependencies. You don’t know what you don’t know until it occurs. For example, a site survey on a luxury construction project overlooks a massive sub-terrain granite rock, only to be discovered in the middle of digging the foundation. This single unknown dependency can set the project back months, and would likely require a complete redesign and foundation rescoping.
Interconnected, Interdependent Teams. Across the entire complex project lifecycle, teams are interconnected, often fully integrated, and dependent on one another for success. Roles and responsibilities are complex too, with territorial centralized or decentralized control often at the center of friction.
Heavy Time Constraints. Project-focused work is typically time sensitive. Extensions sometimes push delivery deadlines further out than anticipated—often beyond the cycle time of technologies involved. With little time to re-plan, disruptions typically need to be worked around immediately.
Extreme Volatility. Complex projects are unpredictable. While complexity is always high risk, complicated environments can be low risk, as long as you know what you’re doing. Complex projects can—and often do—downgrade from complex to complicated. The Empire State Building is a perfect example. Construction workers began to build with many unknowns and dependencies. Yet, by the time the crew reached the 5th or 6th floor, the learning cycle or rapid repetitive cycle of building floor after floor eliminated many unknowns, reducing project complexity.
External Elements Add to Project Complexity
From unanticipated weather to shifting vendor delivery dates, external elements add to the difficulty of managing project complexity. Factors that are typically out of your control, such as technology, economic and social issues, even a politically charged environment can influence delivery dates, shift timelines and create project complexity.
Technology. Complex projects often need to interface with complementary projects. Large software development projects may integrate programs or systems. Sometimes, complexity is the result of new technology changing faster than the pace of the project. To be clear, technology contributes to complexity in mega projects, but it isn’t the driving source of complexity. The scope of the project set by management along with a variety of other external factors influence project objectives and strategies.
Cost. Money is always a contributing factor to complexity, whether there’s not enough, it’s not distributed properly or decision makers misallocate funds based on an inadequate priority system, resulting from late information and incomplete feedback on progress. In most cases, how organizations treat cost within a project can lead to unnecessary complexities.
Scheduling. Difficult tasks often complicate scheduling. In many cases, projects or tasks can’t move from one phase to the next without critical tasks being completed. This often requires complex master schedules to align interconnected tasks, resources and teams.
Political Environment. Complex projects often involve some interaction with local, federal and state government or public policy. Particularly when political parties disagree on priorities, the environment or public needs, complexity follows.
Global Connectivity and Speed of Transmission. In an interconnected world, information, actions and consequence flow at accelerated pace. The accumulation of minor delays often escalates into unintended consequence, making holistic real-time assessment a critical imperative for success. All too often we hear, “If only we had known about this situation earlier, we could have done something about it.” Simply stated, it’s often “too little too late.”
Complex Project Management—What Success Looks Like
Analysis and Information at the Ready. Robust analysis beforehand helps you identify where complexity originates, whether it’s political, technical etc. Then, a strategy can be put in place—a complexity map of sorts— that sufficiently defines dependencies to manage major elements. Having the right information available at this beginning phase is critical to making timely corrections in the right sequence.
Once complexity factors are identified, you can prioritize and plan, understanding enough of your subject matter to capture and create an executable, feasible, practical schedule. An executable schedule means all the dependencies that you know are defined to the best of your ability. Doing this without micromanaging or trying to predict everything that will happen is key. In many ways, less is more.
Dynamic Visibility Across Planning, Scheduling and Execution. Increased visibility across planning, scheduling and execution allows you to take proactive steps. Armed with early warning signs, you can take corrective actions before it’s too late.
During the planning phase, the goal is to set the project up in a way that gives correctly sized and located buffers the best chance to protect your project network. During scheduling, the goal is to create the best allocation of resources with the least disruption across all projects in a portfolio. As the project begins executing, dynamic visibility within and across projects should have a single priority system—the consumption of buffers sending signals to help identify what’s important and what’s not.
Contingency Plans in Place. In complex project management, planning is everything. Yet with many unknowns, it’s essential to make contingency plans. The key is to allot enough time, protection, buffering and capital while still maintaining control. And of course, it’s vital to surround yourself with competence, another form of capacity buffering.
Critical Junctures Identified and Managed. Like a firework that fails to shoot upward, but burns and sparkles across the ground, one fluctuation and the network of dependencies allow deviations to run rampant through your projects neural network causing chaos. Portfolio and Project Managers anticipate this by identifying and managing critical junctures. Once there’s an executable, feasible schedule in place, vulnerable points of integration are sufficiently protected. This is where having intelligent feedback from these protective buffers is important to signal when and when not to intervene.
Remember the Hubble Telescope launched by NASA in 1990? Construction and engineering began in the late 1970’s, but the project quickly ran above cost and behind schedule after the Challenger accident brought the U.S. space program to a halt, grounding the Space Shuttle fleet. To save money, the Hubble team opted to have components sent to space to be assembled instead of the ground assembly test run. Technical corrections and delays cost $4.7 billion, rather than the $400 million that was budgeted.
Then there’s the Mars Climate Orbiter Project, where communication and system wide perspective and planning was critical. In 1999, a Mars space probe from NASA was ‘lost’. A number of the failures related to project management according to the investigative report that followed. The point? Identifying and managing critical junctures and key points of integration is essential.
- Define tasks, considering all the dependencies. Understand critical junctures in the network.
- Complete tasks in the right sequence and only adapt to significant change as needed.
- Practice real-time active task updating, to make decisions based on real information.
- Trust forward-looking operational metrics and risk indicators. Take action in real time.
- Follow the sequence of the Five Levels of Flow: Information flow, Decision flow, Operational flow, Cash flow and Feedback flow.
The Role of Communication in Complex Projects
Poor communication is the biggest complaint in complex project management. “We don’t know what’s going on because no one talks to each other.” Successful complex projects hinge on communication in real time. With software that sends signals in the moment, everyone at every layer can see what’s going on, receiving information and separating critical signals from noise. Collective situational awareness in real time is key to effective collaboration.
Effective communication is necessary for dynamic, real time visibility. When you can cut through the noise and identify what’s important, with feedback you can respond to a correct priority list, it’s easier to catch small variations before cost escalation or slippage invisibly escalates to a crisis.
In complex projects, small changes can have monumental impact. Increased visibility is critical, but you need experience to recognize which small slips are critical. Fail to understand the impact of small problem accumulation until the last third of the project life cycle, and suddenly, there’s no time or budget to deal with it.
The Takeaway—Complex Project Success Requires a Forward Focus
Portfolio managers today face increasingly difficult demands. They’re expected to do more with less and achieve better outcomes, while embracing new technologies, opportunities and consequences. At the same time, tasks are more complex, budgets get decreased and customer expectations continue to grow at break neck speed.
Leading a successful complex project is challenging. At the speed at which commercial, economic, social and political influence impacts every decision, unknown dependencies create risk, amplify challenges at dynamic interfaces and more, making complexity pervasive.
To quote John Thompson, co-founder of Exepron,
“However, years of failed and successful complex projects have taught us one thing: history does not predict the future in a complex environment. Rather, success in complex project management comes from maintaining a forward focus—before, in planning and then during the projects execution. Dynamic visibility across planning, scheduling and execution in real time makes it possible to be proactive, not reactive when managing business uncertainty. Start with the end in mind. After all, if you know where you’re going, and have sufficiently pre-defined critical dependencies and resource requirements, you’re unlikely to get lost along the way.”
How do you define a complex project? What steps do you take to reduce complexities across project portfolios?