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How to Reduce Project Complexity with Management Principles

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Every project manager must assess and take into account project complexity as part of the planning phase. It's important to know the magnitude of the challenge ahead and make sure that the team has what it takes to deliver.

To ensure that no resources are wasted and the project achieves success, project managers bear the important role of managing the degree of the endeavor’s complexity. This is where basic principles of project management come into play.

Adhering to a set of defined values can help simplify things. In this article, we’ll identify and explore the common factors that contribute to project complexity and the principles you can apply to tackle each of the difficulties with success.

What is complexity in project management?

There is no one universally accepted definition for project complexity, but ultimately, project complexity relates to the combination of all factors that affect the level of effort in managing a project and achieving the desired project outcome.

Project complexity is marked by several elements that are distinct, yet at the same time, interrelated with each other (a more in-depth discussion in the next section). On top of the different variables operating on several interdependencies, these unseen factors add to the difficulty of a project:

  • Ambiguity, which is the absence of critical information;
  • Change, which are the events that transform or affect tasks, job functions, processes, structures, and even the entire project; and
  • Unpredictability or uncertainty, which is the inability to know what will happen next.

A lot of ventures fail because managers underestimate project complexity. This is no surprise - without an understanding of how difficult an endeavor is, you won’t be able to prepare effectively and reduce the threats surrounding your project. The more complex a project is, the more risks it carries.

Thus, proper complexity management is an important principle of project management because it promotes efficient decision-making, taking into account all the risks that come with the difficulties in each step of the project. It’s one of the most important concepts included in the PMP® certification course and exam.

How to tackle dimensions of complexity

Initially applied to natural sciences, Complexity Theory has found its way into project management practice, shattering the traditional perspective that projects are linear entities that can be managed with a top-down strategy.

Since projects are nonlinear, dynamic, and actually unpredictable, managers must be able to exercise collaboration, creativity, and adaptation when tackling project complexity, instead of using a mechanical approach.

The Complexity Theory states that order can emerge from seemingly chaotic systems, such as in businesses, especially when you understand each dimension of difficulty well. Certified and experienced project manager Mohit Jain PgMP® outlines the common factors that contribute to project complexity and the ways you can address them with basic principles of project management:

1. Uncertainty about the scope of the project

A well-defined scope is what every project manager wants before starting a venture. But usually, it doesn't happen. Sometimes, the clients themselves aren’t clear about what they want. Other times, the stakeholders’ demands change over the project lifecycle, evolving from a single deliverable to 10 or more.

These uncertainties can be a roadblock to setting a proper budget and an accurate timeline, throwing off a clear plan, and making way for a more complex project. For those who are preparing for the certification test, questions relating to uncertainty are among the most common queries you’ll encounter. This PMP® exam simulator should help you prepare for those types of test questions.

What principle of project management to use? When you face uncertainty about the scope of a project, embrace the principle of stakeholder engagement, communicating, and getting to know your clients. Here’s how:

  • Talk to your clients early on in the project planning. Ask them specific questions that will help them to pin down what kinds of outcomes they want from the project. Aside from deliverables, strive to define all the necessary procedures and team member responsibilities. If possible, create a project breakdown structure to avoid or at least reduce ambiguity and manage project complexity.
  • Once you get the project off the ground, communicate often. Evaluate milestones and report updates regularly, reiterating to your stakeholders the targets you’ve agreed on at the start of the project. Should there be changes in deliverables along the way, make the necessary adjustments on the budget and timeline estimates. With constant communication, you can ensure that you and your stakeholders will always be on the same page, reducing project complexity.
Just like a project, you want to make sure you are using the most up-to-date materials. If you previously put together a process-based study plan, now is the time to update it. Move from process to principle-based project management and Performance Domains, and make sure you allow adequate focus on agile methods to reflect the content of the PMBOK® Guide, Seventh Edition.

2. Newer technologies

To increase the efficiency of delivering projects, most project managers prefer using advanced technologies. Depending on the industry you’re in, you may go for blockchain, the internet of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and more. These tools, however, are expensive to buy and maintain.

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On top of that, your team members would need time to be equipped with the skills necessary for using such technologies. For this reason, newer technologies, although helpful, may present another dimension of difficulty. PMP® practice exams often contain questions related to this kind of project complexity.

What principle of project management to use? When you face the dilemma of adopting new technologies, the best way to approach it is with the principle of stewardship, defined as the responsible planning and management of resources. Here’s how you can apply it to overcome project complexity:

  • Before you invest in new technologies, collect data on existing tools you have. Are they maximized and optimized well? Will an upgrade be more cost-efficient than a new technology? Ask for feedback from your team members to know how existing technologies are being used. Determine if a new set of tech can help boost the returns on investment on your complex project.
  • Create a resource management plan that details key aspects: specific requirements, allocation, and utilization. The necessary resources should be in a hierarchical list so you can readily see which ones are the priorities amid the project complexity.
  • Assign the right human resources to the project, making sure that they're available and capable. If not, adjust the schedule of team members or include training sessions in your project’s timetable.

3. Multiple stakeholders’ involvement

The more stakeholders are involved in a project, the more complex it becomes. Take, for example, government projects, which typically require engagement with local authorities, contractors, consultants, special interest groups, and citizens, among others.

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With different stakeholders having different views, it’s sometimes difficult to find consensus about the details of the project. As the project develops, there could be miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed expectations, making a highly complex project a complicated one.

What principle of project management to use? In this scenario, excellent stakeholder engagement is likewise crucial. As mentioned earlier, talk to your audience early on and often. Get as many inputs as possible, but make sure that everything is aligned to your overall goal.

Aside from stakeholder engagement, embrace the value of tailoring. Create a unique delivery approach based on your context, specifically the large stakeholder network you’re dealing with. Here are some tailoring steps you can follow to overcome this type of project complexity:

  • Draw inspiration from the processes, tools, and techniques from the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) when creating your unique methodology. Find one that closely resembles the multi-stakeholder nature of your project. Or, at the very least, find relevant approaches that you can scale up.
  • As you execute the project, regularly assess if the elements you have selected to be part of your methodology work to the benefit of your team. If members are constantly modifying the process or completely not using it at all, that's a sign that the method isn't fit for the complex project you're handling. Regroup and adjust.
  • Don’t forget to document the methodology you used so that you can use or tweak it for future complex projects which may have a huge stakeholder network.

4. Multiple partners’ involvement

In the same way that several stakeholders make for project complexity, having plenty of partners also carry difficulties. Perhaps you contracted with different service providers to come up with an integrated solution for your operations, but then you realize that there are so many interdependencies of resources in such an arrangement. You’ll find scenarios like this in the PMP® Certification test. This is why using an exam simulator is a good tool for studying and being familiar with tough questions.

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What principle of project management to use? What you need in a complex project like this is the value of strong leadership. You must be able to plan, decide, oversee, and inspire team members effectively. These are some ways you can tackle this project complexity with the leadership principle of project management:

  • Create a thorough project plan. This is the most important leadership step. Without plotting your goals, scope, deliverables, and project schedule, you'll find yourself changing requirements every now and then. Your partners will be left overwhelmed and confused. With a good project plan, you’ll have a high-level picture of the project vision, know what kinds of skill sets and technologies you need, and ultimately reduce project complexity.
  • Assign clear roles and responsibilities. To reduce functional overlaps and dependencies, make sure that each of your service providers has a clear idea of their team's scope, tasks, and deliverables.
  • Measure the performance regularly. From the outset, have the right key performance indicators for each team. This will help in evaluating progress. Enforce regular reporting. If possible, create an incentive program that encourages excellent work amid the complex project you’re trying to accomplish.

5. Interdependence on multi-systems

Another case of project complexity is when you use multiple systems to achieve goals more efficiently. Yes, you’ll be able to create a better workflow in this setup but unless you have mastery over the networks you’re using, things can quickly go out of control. In addition, this requires multiple integrations and touchpoints that make the project more complex.

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What principle of project management to use? To tackle this project complexity, you should adopt the principle of holistic thinking. Ask yourself always, “what’s the big picture?” Channel holistic thinking with these action steps:

  • Inform your service providers regularly. From the start of your complex project, the service providers must understand what the other teams are doing. Throughout the implementation of integration, they must have regular updates so they can see the big picture and make adjustments to their timelines, if necessary.
  • Plot a realistic project schedule. When you’re thinking holistically, you take into account the fact that integration of multiple systems takes time. Rather than pressuring providers to provide a shorter time frame for delivery, provide buffers for the delays that would accommodate additional tasks along the way. With this, you’ll be able to manage expectations from the complex project you’re handling.
  • Create a causal loop diagram, a visual representation of the interconnected variables. Understanding how one element affects another, you'll be able to improve the integration of systems and reduce project complexity.

6. New territory or new market

Entering a new, uncharted market is a complex project in itself. Sometimes, the information you need to make crucial decisions aren’t readily available. Apart from the uncertainty, the risk for failure is high. If you’re not careful and strategic, your organization could lose a lot of resources.

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What principle of project management to use? Change management is the guiding concept you must remember when taking on new territory. These are some relevant strategies for overcoming this project complexity:

  • Ask team members these key questions: what's your goal in entering the new market? What current need will your product or service address? Who’s your competitor? By asking these questions, you gradually get your team members’ buy-in for this huge transition you're embarking on, an important step in change management.
  • Research and share market insights. Knowledge is power when leaping into new territory and dealing with a huge change and complex project in the organization. The more that you know, the better you can prepare. Therefore, conduct market analysis. Learn about the size of the market, the potential and existing customers, and their buying behaviors.
  • Get expert opinions. They’re the ones who are deeply familiar with the uncharted territory you’re entering. It pays to consult with professionals about emerging trends in the industry. With their guidance, you will not only reduce project complexity but also tackle this major transition with better preparation.

From the start, project complexity is a crucial element every project manager must take into account. It will not only drive your endeavor to success, but also help you get there more efficiently even within the triple constraints of schedule, cost, and scope.

If you want to know more about project management principles, continue to visit our blog page. Feel free to use our exam simulator as you prepare for the certification test. The updated PMBOK® Guide, which contains the principles of project management, will not be included in the exam yet, but it's important to be familiar with the concepts already.

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