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How to get to grips with a complex project brief

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Effective project leaders understand the nature of a serious challenge. While we often face a lot of pressure from all areas, we need to anchor ourselves and keep our eye on the outcomes.

When managing complex projects, it's crucial to identify the sources of complexity within your project and set an approach to manage those elements. The following is a set of considerations that enable success in delivering a complex project.

Project requirements and governance structures

The scope of complex projects tends to be fluid in nature, where either the objectives themselves or the methodology required to deliver the goals are unclear. The effort and resources needed to deliver tactical (outputs-based, e.g. a new application) versus strategic (outcomes-based, e.g. enterprise-wide transformation) projects will differ considerably.

It's worth asking yourself: is your project, in fact, a programme? If you have multiple competing workstreams and have to manage them as independent projects, then chances are you are managing a programme. In which case, the emphasis should be on getting the work elements broken down further into individual components so that they have the necessary focus. You can then react accordingly to new information where being nimble is required, especially in knowledge-based projects. The risk of this approach is that independent groups end up being siloed and should have some accountability for the overall programme.

Fix your delivery system by establishing clear guidelines and common processes for the project governance so that administration and coordination is as easy and intuitive as possible. You should leverage technology in setting up your project tracking and monitoring systems. Aim to automate as much of the repetitive administration, freeing up time for the more complex analytical tasks.

Sufficiently resource your project with capable team members, and manage them effectively. Establish processes for effective communication, coordination and collaboration between the team members. Ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and understood across all team members.

Where possible, adopt an agile approach either by taking agile elements or going completely agile, to enable faster feedback loops and rapid non-linear planning cycles.

However, ensure that you have adequate documentation to maintain traceability and accountability for any issues that arise.

Clarifying and monitoring project objectives

Any lack of clarity on the scope and goals would require greater flexibility on the project, allowing you to change direction as requirements change. There are differing degrees of certainty when you are releasing a completely new product versus when you are making enhancements to an existing product.

The project manager must consider deliverables in terms of outcomes (value) rather than outputs (items). A purely output-driven project manager might push the team hard to ensure that they deliver the product on time, within specification and to budget, and still not satisfy the sponsor's expectations for what a successful project looks like.

To avoid misunderstanding and disappointment, you need to manage the sponsor's expectations and realistically assess and communicate the organisation's capacity to deliver. Be clear on what is required to increase capacity.

Determine the critical success factors to the project and establish effective processes to measure and report project performance.

Complex projects must be continually evaluated in the context of the business, including changing environment and strategies to refine accordingly. It is essential to get the balance right between command and control versus learning and adaptation; otherwise, you risk unintended consequences, business misalignment and wasted effort.

Stakeholder communication and management

Make efforts to identify and classify stakeholders at the very early stages of the project, to communicate intentions and gather inputs into defining the aims of the project at the initiation or chartering stage. The more stakeholders you have, the more views and competing drives that you need to manage to ensure that the project can progress throughout the various stages.

The key to effective stakeholder management is communication. Make sure that updates are regular and timely using multiple channels. It's better to err on the side of caution and overcommunicate as critical messages may be disregarded off hand. You need to make allowances when communications span different time zones and cultures, e.g. having virtual meetings where two groups are speaking in English as a second language.

Your project team, as internal stakeholders, require capable leadership. Ensure that performance can be objectively measured. Objectives must be set in advance and monitored to incentivise performance. Tasks and responsibilities are equitably distributed across the team. Associated recognition and rewards are comparable to the contributions of the individuals. Ensure that you seek feedback on team members from as many areas as possible. As a project manager, you may miss additional discretionary efforts team members contribute to the overall project that aren't attributed to their immediate tasks.

Where external stakeholder support is critical to the success or failure of the project, you need to apply soft skills to maintain momentum. It is challenging to navigate your network without being able to apply negotiation, persuasion or influence to overcome personal resistance barriers and diffusing conflicts. Where you anticipate trade-offs, it's vital to obtain and document agreements up front where possible.

Organisational culture and structure

Organisational size and level of integration matters. The wider the impact, the greater the likelihood of failure due to wider spans of control required and the more moving parts that you need to coordinate. Large-scale legacy organisations face a multitude of interdependencies and constraints for your project – make sure you manage them. These organisations operate with various dependencies and limitations, including bureaucracy, funding limits, culture and politics, which creates a challenging environment.

Balancing the bureaucracy that mature organisations have while also trying to take an agile approach can be challenging. Offending critical stakeholders because you didn't obtain all the required permissions before attempting to drive your project forward is not a good plan. Forgiveness won't always be forthcoming.

In this scenario, the best way to manage is to ensure that you have effective project sponsorship so that it is assigned as a high priority. You need to ensure that the project is considered as necessary if it's not mission-critical to reduce the element of uncertainty when obtaining essential resources and support to overcome resistance within the organisation.

Environmental factors: risk and uncertainty

In a project exposed to a VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) external factors drive uncertainty and change to the project. Project managers should have a set of effective risk management tools to develop effective strategies for the 'known unknowns' and allow some contingency for the 'unknown unknowns'.


Effectiveness in all the above factors will determine how predictable the project outcomes will be in the face of complexity. Take the learning from each complex project, as this will enable you to move forward as a professional and an organisation. The more you expose yourself to complex challenges and gain experience, the better prepared you will be to handle new complex projects in the future.

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