Bloggers Sound Off: Navigating Complexity

By Voices Team
In this Voices on Project Management roundtable, bloggers discuss the two main characteristics of complexity, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™ In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity: multiple stakeholders and ambiguity. We asked: Do you agree that these are the top causes of complexity? If not, what other defining characteristics are present in projects of high complexity? 
Conrado Morlan, PMP, PgMP: I have experienced complexity in several projects, usually at the hand of stakeholders. Stakeholders did not communicate the project scope, the dependencies with other projects, and sometimes even their own agendas. That deficiency in communication created ambiguity, which led the project manager and team to work toward an incorrect direction, and then implement adjustments on the fly to minimize impact to the project.
The level of ambiguity may be higher when projects have dependencies with other projects, programs or initiatives. Stakeholders may not be sharing project dependency information with other stakeholders, meaning information isn’t cascading to the project managers and project teams. In one case I experienced, the project managers in charge of those projects “hit a wall” and, while looking for answers, contacted project managers working in the dependent projects. This initial contact led the project managers to meet with the stakeholders involved to align the projects and bring them back to the right path.
Communication in projects is key to enable the project to deliver benefits and help accomplish organizational goals.
Mário Henrique Trentim, PMI-RMP, PMP: For sure, having multiple stakeholders is the main characteristic of complexity, although uncertainty, ambiguity and risk also increase it. Internal and external stakeholders bring up a myriad of key success factors during negotiation: political, environmental, social, economic and business objectives. Communications is a good way to handle this issue. A public relations plan, for example, may be a good idea to show transparency and get buy-in from public stakeholders.
The human factor is critical as well. Today’s projects demand skilled professionals who need to be motivated and managed to get the job done. All stakeholders should be engaged by a different approach based on sponsorship, partnership, leadership and citizenship. That’s a systemic view of projects, and we have to manage them in a holistic way. We have to learn to deal with uncertainty and complexity, working toward a progressively incremental solution in a cyclical and iterative way to deliver better business results.
Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP: Ambiguity has very little to do with complexity. And I would suggest that the Pulse of the Profession™ survey result is a clear sign that complexity is poorly understood. Ambiguity can be managed and controlled; complexity is an innate characteristic of the “project system” and can only be influenced.
Ambiguity — or more accurately a lack of consensus on the degree of ambiguity — in a project is a factor of poor communication and/or bad management. There’s nothing wrong with searching for ways to achieve the objective and discussing what success will actually look like, provided all of the key stakeholders understand the project is a journey of discovery.
If the objective is clear, journeys of discovery simply need regular reappraisals of the current plan based on what’s been learned to date and the willingness to replan and refocus based on learned experience.
Situations where ambiguity causes problems include:
  • When a project’s strategic objective is unclear. In this circumstance, ambiguity is caused by bad management wasting money and effort. Fix the management deficiencies and you remove the ambiguity.
  • When stakeholders expect certainty in situations where the technical solution to the problem has not been developed. Asking for detailed schedules and fixed prices before the project team has designed the solution is asking for problems. The solution is better communication and trust.
  • When different stakeholders in positions of influence have varying expectations of the project’s outcome. Aligning expectations needs effective leadership and communication.
Unresolved ambiguity will lead to project failure and may influence the complexity of the relationships within the stakeholder network. The good news is that ambiguity is resolvable through better communication, leadership and management.
Kevin Korterud: At my firm, we have developed many effective methods to mitigate drivers of complexity in technology projects. These include reducing ambiguity through the use of a phased project approach as well as a structured method for managing multiple stakeholders. However, an emerging driver of complexity on technology projects has to do with the ever-increasing level of required system integration effort.
As manual processes convert to automated systems, the average number of system integration touch points is on the increase. In addition, it is also common that the system integration touch points of a project will need to be coordinated with other projects’. This “network” of integration touch points makes for additional challenges when attempting to estimate, design, test and implement new technology projects.
Which characteristics of complexity affect your projects most?

The views expressed within the PMI Voices on Project Management blog are contributed from external sources and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of PMI.

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