Project Complexity Simplified

A project might be considered complex for a variety of reasons. Some are complicated because they affect a broad swath of end users or they involve a multitude of external partners. Activities such as communication and work planning become more challenging than usual in these cases, as each sub-group likely has unique concerns, expectations, and varying levels of flexibility when it comes to carrying out project activities and working around other’s resource availabilities.

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Some projects become complex when funding levels are uncommonly low or timeframes are compressed. The Project Team’s options to address problems that may arise are often limited in these scenarios, making it difficult to resolve issues through the usual processes. Resource allocation and contingency planning are just two of the competencies that may be sorely tested when budgets and schedules complicate a project.

Though each project requires its own approach to dealing with complex issues and developing solutions to the challenges presented, PMP®s may consider starting with a few baseline strategies if they feel overwhelmed.

Identify the project’s deal breakers. The level of complexity is very often linked to the proliferation of fixed points that define the project. For many teams, a hard line exists around available funding. This may make contingency planning difficult or significantly limit options for labor resources, materials, and other necessities. Other PMP®s must work around schedules that include fixed deadlines. In these instances, accommodating any timeframe slips or rescheduling work activities along the way is nearly impossible. Knowing where the parameters are unyielding allows the team to develop more useful solutions to potential issues.

Know your dependencies. Scour the entire project plan and identify every conceivable task dependency. These are likely to play a vital role in successfully tackling issues that arise mid-project, and it’s important the team knows exactly where the downstream impacts will occur if an emergency occurs. In addition, it’s prudent to ensure vendors also have a thorough understanding of where their activities fall in the dependency matrix. They will be ready to raise an alarm earlier if one of their top-level tasks runs into trouble, and they will also have the right insight on where they may need to be prepared to make their own last-minute changes in case problems crop up for someone else on whose progress their own actions depend.

Contingency plans are key. Even if your secondary (or, in some cases, possibly tertiary) strategies aren’t elaborate, they may still prove to be a valuable link between identifying a critical path problem and giving the team a workable footing from which to find a solution. Teams that manage complex projects may also benefit from developing contingency plans for issues they would normally put in the “not likely to happen” category. Fast-paced and budget-lean projects complicate the normal contingency plan development process, as Project Teams may not have the resources or experience necessary to re-plan critical activities on the fly.

Prioritize project controls. Utilizing a robust project control methodology can be the difference between success and failure when executing a complex project. The right project controls will enable the team to identify potential and likely issues around those activities that qualify as deal breakers for each project. With an effective early warning system in place, PMP®s can spot problems before they have a chance to impact the project, an advantage that becomes downright critical when time or funding are short, or when there are few options for executing top-level activities. If project controls aren’t the team’s strong suit, consider partnering with an outside expert who can apply a time-tested methodology to a project that might otherwise fail without it.

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