Keeping chaos out of complexity



Ambiguity is a part of every project. Pinning down the knowns and anticipating the unknowns starts in the planning stages and should be standard operating procedure every step of the way.

As the complexity of a project or program rises, though, elements and participants interact in increasingly unforeseeable ways—multiplying the potential for risks. A more risk-filled world may be on the way, with more projects bringing added complexity. According to IBM's 2011 The Essential CIO survey, 57 percent of 3,018 global respondents expect more complexity and change over the next five years.

Those predictions of the near future are echoed in a 2011 Gartner survey of project management office (PMO) leaders: Thirty percent of respondents said the most significant driver of expected PMO changes over the next five years is the “need for leadership of complex initiatives that drive specific business goals.”

But keeping chaos out of complex endeavors, and therefore reducing the potential for risks, requires more than simply dealing with it on a case-by-case basis—and even more than relying on formally implemented strategies across the enterprise.


Beyond traditional project and industry knowledge, projects with added complexity call for organizations to take things to the next level by implementing processes specifically tailored to tackle complexity. Frequently, that requires addressing the people—not the technical—side of the project.

The more complex the project, the more likely decision-making must be delegated to people who are handling the complexity in real time, says David Squires, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, vice president of project management at Axon Drilling Products, Houston, Texas, USA.

“Project managers especially need to know how their projects impact the organization's income statement and balance sheet in real time, which will lead to better results,” he says. “The project team has to understand the organizational strategies that generated their project. This helps them solve most tactical and operational problems on their own.”

To help ensure successful outcomes, he recommends organizations formally acknowledge the risks and demands of projects with added complexity by:

  • Recognizing that the faster a project with added complexity moves, the more decision-making authority needs to be delegated to the project team
  • Establishing robust lines of communication so projects don't have to wait long for internal or external decisions
  • Ensuring that every project team knows the organizational strategies driving their projects
  • Teaching project teams to think of their projects as mini-businesses and run them as such

Such approaches often represent unfamiliar territory for organizations. “Understanding and managing complexity is quite new to project management, and traditional project management approaches that are plan-based, linear and rely on decomposition theory and control theory do not work when dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity,” says Kathleen Hass, PMP, principal consultant at Kathleen Hass & Associates Incorporated in Denver, Colorado, USA and author of Managing Complex Projects: A New Model.

She notes that complex systems are full of interdependencies, interconnections and dynamic interaction—and complex systems adapt as the environment changes to generate novel features, making outcomes difficult to predict. “More iterative and adaptive approaches are needed to be able to make changes as more is learned,” she says.


Communicating Complexity: Helping Stakeholders Understand

“It's hugely important for stakeholders and sponsors to acknowledge increased complexity, and they often don't want to,” says Robert Handler, research vice president in the business of IT research division at Gartner Research in San Diego, California, USA. The best way to communicate it is through repetition and reinforcement, he says: “Complexity is an abstract concept. It often takes awhile to click.”

Stakeholders need to come to grips with how difficult it is to reduce complexity, says Jonathan Whitty, PhD, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia. To reinforce this idea for them, use familiar examples that underscore the fluidity and unpredictability of projects with added complexity. Dr. Whitty points to complex adaptive systems such as ant colonies as examples of systems that evolve and retain knowledge about how best to perform. “They have error and inefficiency built into them,” he says. “They are all networks, and these inherent qualities that we don't appear to like are the reasons why these systems are so robust and can adapt.”


Because projects are social arrangements of people—project and program managers, stakeholders, sponsors, vendors, etc.—who come together to accomplish a unique task cooperatively, complexity emerges from the relationships between them, says Svetlana Cicmil, PhD, professor in global operations studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol, England. So managing complexity requires paying attention to, and successfully navigating, the dynamics of interactions and power relationships between diverse project participants, she says.

The first step organizations should take is to acknowledge persisting relational complexity and the high level of unpredictability in project environments, says Dr. Cicmil, co-author of Exploring the Complexity of Projects: Implications of Complexity Theory for Project Management Practice.

That doesn't always happen when companies aim to reduce complexity with a rigid, top-down “command-and-control” approach, says Dr. Cicmil. Such strategies don't work because they thwart adaptation.

Organizations are better equipped to deal with added complexity by maximizing interaction across silos, says Vala Afshar, chief customer officer at Enterasys Networks in Andover, Massachusetts, USA. “By leveraging social collaboration capabilities that are integrated into existing business processes and tools, stakeholders are better equipped to capture, analyze and report progress, constraints and cross-functional dependencies specific to project milestones and required deliverables.”


A change in mindset also requires a shift in expectations. “With all the years we've had modeling the weather, and the money and great brains that have been thrown at predicting its behavior, we still can only guarantee predictions in hours, not days,” says Jonathan Whitty, PhD, senior lecturer in project management at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia. Projects with added complexity are no different, he says.

But there's a useful lesson organizations can take from the analogy: Flexibility and adaptability are essential for managing complexity. “What we can do is create organizations that learn better, that use projects as a means for gathering data about a particular business environment, and then change their practices and procedures to encapsulate those lessons,” says Mr. Whitty.

By doing so, organizations increase their chances of successfully managing the elements that they can control and take a big step toward ensuring complexity doesn't devolve into chaos. PM




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