How to Better Manage Complex Projects

Sep 14, 2015
9 Min Read

The growing global business market requires project managers to spearhead more complex projects and strategic initiatives, and difficulties are mounting. A project management expert explains how projects are evolving and how project managers can successfully lead during such challenging times.

Project management originally began as an engineering function, a way of managing work such a building a road.

When it came to the end of the road, it was the end of the project.

But project management today often resembles the yellow brick road, with a diverse set of characters along the way, constant challenges and changing landscapes that seem as if the end of the road will never be reached.

Toto, it’s enough to make any project manager dream of just going home.

Richard Heaslip, who teaches program leadership skills and system and organizational dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania, says that projects are getting more complex. Why? Well, the reason also is complex.

“We now face highly technical problems, and much more expertise is needed,” he says. “Many more projects are initiated to pursue strategic goals, which are much different than just pursuing work-related goals such as building a road.”

When you’re tasked with achieving strategic goals, you as a project manager may have to be ready to change the way you’re doing things, and acknowledge you may not even achieve your goal. “You’re looking at doing things that have never been done before, in ways that have never been done before,” he explains.

Heaslip, author of “Managing Complex Projects and Programs,” says that adding to the challenges for project or program management these days is the number of people who are involved in a project. Each of these people “has a need for detail,” requiring a project manager to write and present extensive reports to satisfy all those various needs. [Check out the Dashboards and Automated Reporting tools using QuickBase].

“Producing documents and presentations is very time consuming for program or project managers and their teams,” he says. “It must be done well, because poorly informed committees too often make counterproductive recommendations.”

To add to the challenge, diverse stakeholders – from regulatory committees to development teams – also get involved. As these secondary committees grow, they become “more inclined to assume a governing posture,” he explains, and that can mean they withhold their endorsement of team recommendations or try in other ways to influence others to withhold their support. Further, project managers must be aware of the high sensitivity of competing interests – and figure out a way to align all the differing views and get support for moving forward, he says.

“It can be very challenging for project managers,” Heaslip says. “I think project managers must be a jack-of-all-trades because they have to figure out how to satisfy all the needs.”

One of the things that Heaslip says project managers must understand is whether they are traditional project managers or are more inclined to lead toward innovation.

For example, a traditional approach calls for the project manager to project what needs to be done to meet the project goals. They then “spend time managing that plan to show they were right,” and doing the work that leads the organization toward the desired outcome, he says.

On the other hand, less-traditional project managers will embrace the idea that a project will require adaption, knowing that such a plan often will lead to learning and innovation. “They recognize that change will be needed as they proceed, and they will need to change things on the fly,” he explains.

“There can be different mindsets involved in a project, but the most successful project managers accept there will be tension as part of the decision process and recognize that disagreement can be good,” he says. “It can lead to innovation and creativity. If you’re someone who is miserable when there’s ambiguity, you need to think about that.”

So, with the increasing complexity, demand for innovation and growing number of stakeholders, how does a project manager succeed in such an environment? Heaslip offers this advice:

  1. Understand what is complex and uncertain about a project. For example, if there is organizational  complexity because of the number of secondary committees a project manager must deal with, then try to cut back on those committees. That will at least reduce the number of background documents and presentations you and your team must prepare or the number of approval steps that are necessary for decisions to be made.
  2. Identify the best expertise that will be needed to manage that uncertainty and complexity. For example, a project manager running a drug development trial for a pharmaceutical company may have the operational knowledge necessary to complete a clinical trial efficiently, but lack the medical knowledge that’s necessary to assess and manage its outcomes.
  3. Minimize any uncertainty or complexity that you can by using insights from those with different expertise. “You can’t completely eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but you can reduce it,” he says. Finding a physician, for example, who can provide the medical knowledge necessary for the clinical trial will help keep the project on track.
  4. Embrace whatever complexity remains. “Look at it as a way to lead to innovation and don’t let it drive you crazy,” he says. “Sometimes unpredictability leads to new opportunities.” For example, Viagra was initially developed as a heart and blood medication, until researchers discovered that it dilated blood vessels in other, unexpected, parts of the body, he says.

Finally, Heaslip stresses that the best project managers understand this new dynamic and are willing to lead others to the best outcome and not run from the challenge.

“Smart people are going to disagree in a complex project,” Heaslip says. “But they’re usually disagreeing for a good reason, so embrace the tension. “

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