I was recently involved in a research project looking at complexity in project/program management. I will briefly share my views on the subject here.

For me, complexity is a function of having many elements interacting in a multitude of ways with the level of complexity increasing exponentially with increases in either factor.  By elements, I am referring to the full range of contributors – technology, people, information, processes and other enablers (eg finance).

(c) lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

(c) lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

Some elements that come to mind as especially important contributors to complexity in this context are: diverse stakeholder interests, ambiguity in objectives, geographically dispersed locations (incl. timezones, regulations etc), cultural/linguistic differences, novel technologies or solution architectures, the degree to which legacy systems are being modified or replaced, deployment scope (incl. volume and locations), disconnect between objectives and key results, the number and nature of critical interfaces, expected velocity (potentially compromising decision-making in favour of short-termism), significant variation in constituent parts of the solution (potentially requiring different management approaches), the number of agencies subcontracted for parts, equipment or services,  multi-source funding arrangements, excessive governance (potentially limiting responsiveness) and a prior history of poor results (potentially compromising future engagement).

I believe that the best way to handle complex situations such as these is to use a hybrid approach that leverages important parts of systems engineering, program management, project management, change management, aspects of “lean” and findings from the neuroscience and coaching domains.

In the first instance, complexity is tamed by appropriate segmentation. This requires careful decomposition and subsequent re-synthesis to modularize the program based on maximal coherence and minimal interdependency of work packages. If this is done well, the packages can be handled by the most appropriate agency with a fair degree of autonomy (managed by exception).

A strong focus on communication should always be paramount and in complex situations it will require special consideration. To my mind, this will necessarily include proactive sponsorship, visual management techniques, self-serve information repositories and local champions (especially if there are significant cultural/legal aspects and/or geographic dispersion). This platform needs to provide a continual confirmation of the “why and how” to create an ongoing context for updates related to “what, when and who”. Success requires positive stakeholder engagement and that is only going to happen after the neuroscience of self-preservation has been dealt with. Humans are naturally averse to perceived adverse circumstances so it is essential to address any such perceptions as early as possible and on a continual basis.

Wherever possible, a (suitably) prioritized, evolutionary and risk-driven approach should be adopted to allow for proper engagement, learning and adaptation. In this way, elements of MSP, Lean Startup, Agile, Rolling Wave and similar doctrines converge with the behavioural needs espoused by change management best practice.

As implied above, a proactive risk management framework is critical. Complexity is a primary driver of risk. Much of what I have outlined above is basically focused on establishing the essential risk-reduction mechanisms – simplification through intelligent segmentation, exemplary communication keeping everyone and everything connected and a phased/evolutionary approach that both anticipates and facilitates learning and adaptation.


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AuthorTrevor Lindars