Leading Your Way Out of a Complex Project

Image credit: Shutterstock/SpaceQ.

I introduced the concept of complexity a couple of columns ago. In the last column I talked about the effect it can have on organizational culture when it is not recognized or handled well. In this final column on the subject, I want to talk about what can be done when you are faced with a complex project.

I will hasten to add, that this will not be a comprehensive guide. Nor will it provide much detailed advice about how to implement the suggestions I am going to make. The fact of the matter is that whole courses are devoted to this subject, and even though I occasionally teach on the subject, I could not hope to distill that amount of information into a single column like this. If you think it’s worth further discussion, please do get in touch and let me know. I will happily return to this topic in the future if there is interest.

So, we have talked about what not to do when dealing with a complex project. But what can you do? How do you solve the problem of complexity if you are the one that is tasked with running such a project?

Well, the short answer is to understand that cannot manage your way out of complexity, you have to lead your way out. 

This is, admittedly, not only a short answer, but also one that is not all that informative without a bit more explanation.

The first thing to remember is that complex projects are characterized by uncertainty. This uncertainty cannot be overcome by making better plans, by collecting more data or by doing more in-depth analysis.

But classic project management approaches typically involve planning, organizing, and controlling resources, timelines, and tasks. They rely on established processes, predictability, and the ability to control outcomes through direct intervention. And they also rely on collecting and analyzing this data in a central location – the project manager – or project management office.

The problem is that complex projects cannot be put on pause while you figure out your next move. Even in the absence of new input the problem will continue to evolve – in ways that are not predictable, and which may not be obvious. 

The result is that by the time that the project manager has issued new direction, it’s already out of date. So, it does not achieve the desired result and the cycle begins again. Except this time the project manager believes that in the previous iteration he or she did not have enough of the right information – or that their analysis was incomplete – so the next cycle takes even longer, and the solution is even farther out of date by the time it’s applied.

A pilot or engineer would call this “getting behind the power curve.” The centralized, deterministic, data collection and decision-making simply cannot keep up with the speed with which the project evolves and so management’s corrective actions become increasingly disconnected from the reality “on the ground.”

What is needed, instead, is an approach that can keep up with reality as it evolves and deal with unexpected events while they can still be contained or constrained. Effectively, what is needed is an “experimental” approach, where small-scale interventions (probes) are used to test the system, sensing the effects, and responding appropriately. This iterative process allows the team to navigate through uncertainty by learning from the system itself.

In other words what is needed is a project organization that is as adaptable as the project is changeable. The job of the Project Leader is to design, define, develop, and lead that organization. You cannot manage a complex project effectively – you have to lead and organization that does that for you.

In order to do that you, as the leader, need to find a way to cultivate an organizational culture that values resilience, flexibility, and the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and not one that believes success consists of following the original plan. From top to bottom your team needs to understand what outcomes constitute success and what latitude they have to respond to changing circumstances to keep moving towards those goals.

You can definitely classify this as one of those statements that is easy to write down and hard, oh so very hard, to do. I understand that. If it was easy everyone would do it.

That being said, there are some basic principles that underly the process of creating those teams and that organizational culture. These principles could, and have, occupied whole books and whole courses. So, there really isn’t time to delve into them very deeply here.

In the end it comes down to how to create a team with the right culture to deal with contingency as a natural course of events that is resilient in the face of the unexpected events. A team that asks, “now what?” rather than “who messed that up?”

It also requires a team that is trained and trusted by the project leadership to handle the problems they can handle and to report the ones they cannot – and who know how to tell the difference. It also needs to be a team that has common outlook and a common set of priorities so that everyone is moving in the same direction without the constant need for direction.

This is not an easy culture to create. It requires leadership. But it can be done. I have seen it done. It is also worth discussing in more detail. If you are interested in further discussions, please feel free to get in touch at [email protected] or find me on LinkedIn.

About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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