In the world of project management we all like to talk about “complex” projects – managing complex projects is seen as a role for more experienced PMs and “simple” projects for those new to project management. But that suggests projects have to be complex to be taken seriously or to be important to an organisation, whereas I would argue that we should all seek to make our projects simpler because where there is too much complexity then things are much more likely to go wrong.
That’s not to say there aren’t complexities in many projects – there are, especially where new technology is concerned – but instead of assuming certain types of projects have to be complex, why not try and simplify what can be simplified. There are many benefits to doing so:
- Simple concepts are easier to explain and understand
- Simple tasks are less risky so the result is more likely to be successful
- Simple concepts avoid ambiguity
- Simple deliverables are quicker and easier to produce, quality check and test.
So, just how can you remove unnecessary complexity from a project?
Reducing Project Complexity
Know your limitations
One important aspect of reducing complexity is when the project manager accepts the limitations of his/her capabilities and the team’s capabilities. If you take on more work than you know can be realistically delivered in the expected timeframe, or take on work that your team does not have the experience for, then you are making your life harder, your team’s life harder and are, in all probability, going to fail. The time to learn new project management skills is not when a deadline is looming – that just adds unnecessary complications, will result in mistakes and budget or time overruns.
Perhaps, more worryingly, stakeholders could lose confidence in the PM and the team if they think they are not up to the job.
Understand the dependencies
We all know that a common cause of project delays, and hence budget and time overruns, is when interdependent tasks are not delivered on time or to specification. Even worse we sometimes miss the fact that certain tasks are dependent on each other with potentially disastrous results. So if you want to keep things simple make sure you understand which tasks are dependent on each other and in which way. That also means not assigning dependencies when there are none, which can add unnecessary delays to a project.
Avoid long tasks
There is a good reason why an agile approach to projects is both popular and successful – you can quickly learn if something is right, and if not why not, because of frequent deliverables. On non-agile projects it may be many months before a mistake is realised. But you can avoid this even in non-agile environments by avoiding tasks that take more than a few weeks – break them down into smaller chunks with shorter timeframes and you can avoid unnecessary complexity and reworking. Tasks that take too long can introduce a damaging cycle of re-working that can cause huge delays and additional costs to a project.
When you reduce your workload to shorter tasks you can then test each deliverable, as far as is possible, once it is complete. This makes the testing process simpler and the results more reliable because the test cases will be less complex.
Reduce Complexity At The Project Planning Stage
When you are at the initial planning stage of a project look for ways to reduce complexity in every area by keeping tasks short, testing frequently, knowing the capabilities of the team and understanding task dependencies. Simplicity can also replace complexity in your project reports and communications. Avoiding complex reports and other communications helps ensure people actually read and digest reports and also understand what to expect.
Simplicity will help manage the expectations of the stakeholders and generally make the project more enjoyable to work on and have a more successful outcome.
There will, of course, be complex situations, concepts and tasks that cannot be avoided – some things genuinely are complex – but if everything is kept simple and straightforward where it can be, then the chances of a project being delivered successfully will be improved.
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