Being Successful in a Complex Role

If you imagine project management to be like crossing a bridge, at first glance it would seem simple. You start at one end and walk across until you get to the other.

However, it isn’t always that simple, conditions change and possibly a fog sets; whatever the situation we find ourselves in we need to be able to adapt our plan of execution in order to ensure that we meet our goal of reaching the other side.

Projects are in an Ever-changing Environment

In today’s world change is all around us, whether its technological, environmental, political etc. It is not unusual to see an increasing number of external factors (as well as internal ones) leading to our projects becoming more complex. PMI said in a 2017 paper that “Complexity is not going away and will only increase.” and the most defining factors of complexity were identified as:

  • Multiple stakeholders (and their demands)
  • The ambiguity of project features, resources, phases etc
  • Significant political/authority influences
  • Dynamic (changing) project governance

So naturally, the more factors that impact your project the higher the complexity becomes and in turn we see a decrease in the predictability of the project outcome.

Dealing with Complexity in Projects

“What got you here today, won’t get you there tomorrow” – said Marshall Goldsmith. It is therefore important that we recognise that complexity will affect different projects in different ways, producing a set of challenges which will rarely be the same. Knowing how to adapt to complexity (or even reduce it) is therefore vital if we are to increase the chances of project success.

Communication within the project team and the stakeholder’s matters! To reduce complexity straight of the bat it is useful to get all the stakeholders together and produce a set of clear expectations and outcomes for the project. Reducing the opportunity for uncertainty or confusion about where the project is heading is essential.

Relevant data as it becomes available during the project needs to be communicated as quickly as possible; so if any issues do arise everybody is up to date with the current situation and what potentially needs to be done.

Stakeholders should expect the leaders of their project to have an enterprise view, a broad vision of the project and the ability to be adaptive.

Being an adaptive leader requires a lot of push and pull, and the ability to be:

  • Disciplined creating the plan but creative enough to solve any problems that arise.
  • In the moment of today and what needs to be done but having one eye firmly fixed on the future.
  • Patient, taking sufficient time to think things through but then making decisions quickly.

Using VUCA to Guide Strategy and Planning

VUCA is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a combination of qualities that, taken together, characterize the nature of some difficult conditions and situations. It originated in the USA army in the 90’s as a way of mitigating the harm that the forces of VUCA might present.

The method has now become popular within businesses in a similar way that the SWOT technique has been used to evaluate markets that they are in (or want to move into)

Understanding VUCA allows for a move away from traditional ways of working and acknowledgment that complexity will arise.

Project Teams and leaders need to accept that we live in a VUCA world rather than resist it so that the project strategies and plans include dealing with any rapid changes or challenges that may occur.

How to Combat Complexity When it Causes Challenges

When challenges occur they can put project leaders under varying degrees of pressure. So having strategies, tools, and techniques ready as a way of dealing with them is crucial if we are to minimise the impact on project outcomes.

One technique that can be useful is the PSC model. Another acronym that stands for: Perceiving, Sensemaking, and Choreography. Each is a step that allows you to change the way you think when you’re up against a new problem, in order to solve it.

Perceiving – Project leaders need to look at things differently in order to understand complexity. They need to define the problem and then overcome it to meet the needs of the organisation, stakeholders, and customers.

Sensemaking – “The ability to gather just enough information to make an action, that move you in the right direction” – Karl Weick. This is where good communication (as mentioned above) is going to help. Gathering as much information as possible and multiple perspectives can improve decision quality by exploring alternatives and recognising where our thinking might be biased.

Choreography – How are we set up structurally and what are we doing to execute the plan. Leaders need to be able to take the most sound idea and find channels and vehicles that help achieve the desired journey. So having different vantage points weigh in on the problem will allow for the best collective decision to be made.

Complexity and change are now a constant in projects. No matter how well we plan it can all change overnight. Projects can’t be seen as linear (or as simple as walking over a bridge), we will need to get over bumps and look round corners in order to successfully reach our desired outcomes.

Recognising this reality and taking the time to learn and implementing tools and techniques will prepare you for change when it comes and give you the best chance to keep your projects moving forward.

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