Dealing with Very Complex Projects

complexity-630By their very nature, projects can be complex entities. They can be multi-faceted, with deliverables and resources spanning both local and global geographies. They can consist of numerous stakeholders (both internal and external), large-scale dependencies and different phases of execution. Whatever the mix, a project can become quite daunting to even the most seasoned project manager as additional complexity is added.

While project management in general has numerous process methodologies and options for project managers when they are contending with an extremely complex project or program, oftentimes, rigid adherence to a particular methodology can often introduce more complexity than intended. The end result can often be a bureaucratic nightmare which ends up causing more problems than it solves.

With that in mind, what might be the best tactic to employ when attempting to tackle a complex project?

Start from the Ground Up

When staring at the various pieces of a complex project, it is easy for the project manager to become quickly overwhelmed. It is akin to looking at a Jigsaw puzzle splayed out across a coffee table, with all its component pieces in disarray. Yet as we all know, within that maelstrom of confusion lies the eventual solution. With that in mind, it is important to organize your project into manageable ‘pieces’. Going back to the Jigsaw example, people often start working on various sections of the puzzle individually before attempting to consolidate their work. In the same sense, try to look at how your project is structured and see what common denominators exist. Often times, functional areas will make this a little more obvious as well as the different deliverables that make up the project as a whole.

Organize Project into Manageable Parts

Following from the above suggestion, once you start seeing the component parts of your project a little more clearly, begin to organize the project into manageable parts. Usually, the best solution is to create an aggregate ‘program’ that will function as the overarching placeholder for all the component pieces. Once that is in place, you can begin to organize the various parts into functional projects of their own. By doing so, you can start to determine how the various pieces coalesce with each other, how the various resources working on your project are distributed and which stakeholders align with which functional project area.

For more information on projects and programs, please access the previous post: Program Management – When a Project Should Become a Program.

Devise a Solid Communication Plan

With complexity will come multiple individuals working in multiple roles within the overall project (or program) structure. This can include team members in multiple different locations and functional areas, different stakeholders that may only be involved in portions of the project while others are involved more holistically as well as potentially more than one project sponsor. With that in mind, how you disseminate information effectively will be crucially important to the project as a whole. Note everyone needs to be apprised of every change, so metering out information in a targeted fashion will be much more effective. Trying to encapsulate all pieces of data in more amorphous project status report may make it too unwieldy, thereby making it more likely that certain individuals will not be able to determine aspects of the project easily. What works better is to create separate communication zones that align with the individual project components, as they were structured. Each of these communication zones will disseminate communication relevant to the project it is aligned with. For a more holistic communication mechanism, have a program-based communication plan that leverages drill down into the component pieces of the projects. This will allow individuals to get a ‘summary’ view of the program as a whole while allowing them to link to additional details as needed.

Leverage PERT Analysis

One of the most important aspects of dealing with a complex project is handling dependencies. Nothing makes the job of a project manager trickier than trying to determine how and when various aspects of a program need to be completed to ensure everything is on track as a whole. As one tackles the various component pieces of an aggregate program, there will be instances where certain work needs to be performed first before other work can commence. Examples include laying the foundation for a home, installing hardware for use in a new software effort, or even getting various licenses and legal agreements signed and ratified before a project commences. All these must be considered and organized efficiently.

From the standpoint of techniques used to handle dependencies, one of the most well-known is the PERT analysis, which is an acronym that stands for Project(Program) Evaluation and Review Technique. A PERT analysis will yield a chart that will provide an excellent visual representation of how a project or program needs to be set up in order to maximize productivity and ensure all dependencies are factored in correctly. The PERT can then be leveraged to create either a GANTT based schedule or can also be used to assist in Sprint planning if one is leveraging Agile process methodologies.

As a sidebar, there is one massive benefit from performing an adequate PERT analysis: the ability to discern the ‘critical path’ for the project. For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, the critical path is a way to determine the longest route through a PERT chart that will allow you determine the timeline for the completion of the entire project or program. Depending on the outcome, contingency tactics can also be employed by the project manager and stakeholders to ‘fast track’ aspects of the overall program if they determine the completion time for all deliverables exceeds their comfort zone.

For more information on PERT analysis, please access the following posts: The PERT Analysis – Part 1 and The PERT Analysis – Part 2.

Utilize the Correct Tools

As project managers, we are very familiar with leveraging various tools to make our job easier. Whether it be MS Excel or Project, Agile Backlog and Task software utilities, dashboarding programs to convey project status, and so forth. Knowing which tools to use and when is an important component of how we perform our day-to-day duties.

One thing to note: tools are there to help make our jobs easier, not get in our way. As such, it is important for the project manager to know when they should leverage a particular tool and when to avoid doing so. In some cases, especially when a learning curve is involved, a tool can become a hinderance, making things more difficult in the long run. And when contending with a complex project, one does not need to inject more complexity just for the sake of using something that happens to be there. In some cases, less really is more.

For information on how to effectively select the right tools, please access the following post: Project Management Software – Making You More Efficient.

Never Be Afraid to Ask for Help!

This may seem like a no-brainer, yet it is not uncommon for project managers to attempt to deal with all problems personally. While that may get them by with smaller, more manageable projects, it will make their lives a living hell if they attempt to deal with every problem and every contingency personally. With that being said, as part of the overarching communication strategy outlined earlier, the project manager should set up specific communication conduits with certain stakeholders and team members to reach out to when in need of assistance. Keep a list of these individuals and their functional roles handy, even if it’s a postit note on your computer screen. Know when to ask them for feedback or assistance and do not be afraid to call a meeting if an issue has manifested and you require input from your peers. In the end, it is far better to tell people something has arisen up front rather than having them find out when the problem has spiraled into something that could have potentially been dealt with earlier in the cycle.


Complex projects are no picnic. Anyone who has work on one can attest to that. Yet with adversity comes opportunity. We all strive to better ourselves and being the project manager of a complex project can be both daunting and rewarding at the same time. You will stress and you will sweat, but you will also learn a great deal. And ultimate benefit comes with the successful completion of a complex project and the praise and admiration you will feel for yourself, along with (hopefully!) the respect of your peers.

One final note: the suggestions above provide a rudimentary framework to leverage when tackling a complex project. There is a more formal technique available called, ironically, Complex Project Management. For those that may be interested, there is a fair amount of literature on the topic on the internet. Simple search for the ‘complex project management’ keywords in your favorite search engine. For those in the software space, there is a derivative of this technique referred to as ‘Extreme Project Management’, which is meant to function in tandem with Extreme Programming. You can learn a little more about that concept at the following Wikipedia article: