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Navigating complexity in projects

If I planted a seed for every time a client said to me, “It’s more complicated than you can imagine”, I would have a blooming forest by now. The fact is, for most businesses, the subconscious desire to tell a consultant how complicated the task at hand is, reflects the value they place on your services, as they have identified they cannot solve these in-house.

For me, it is an opportunity to help them refocus on the fundamental “get rights”. I approach everything in life as a potential project. Life is complicated and, as with project management, to get a complex project right, you must have some basics nailed down:

  1. Your destination. Start with the big picture of your destination. Where exactly are you going and what exactly do you want to achieve. Take a step back to reflect and answer the following questions. What outcome will this project deliver? Which problems or opportunities are you addressing? And how will you measure success? In essence, what is your vision of achievement. My simple example is, at the end of a standard nine-month pregnancy, you expect a baby. Using that analogy, founders and leaders must know what they want to celebrate at the end. This is crucial because it helps you know where you’re going, but especially it helps you carry along the people you will need to fulfil your vision. Pulling the thread of the pregnancy analogy, once you know it’s a baby you want, then the wheels come into who will be the carrier, what care package should support each milestone trimester, from the nursery to the doctor’s visits and to the type of birth plan. What risks are to be managed or prevented. Ultimately, how can one control, as best one can, the safe delivery of a healthy baby. It’s not complicated once you know what the goal is, because you can use it as a beacon that ensures you do not get lost as changes and the unexpected come up.

  2. Set goals. Stemming from making clear your destination, now you need to make sure to set the goals for the journey. This involves thinking through the goals you assign to each member of the team you are leading to the destination. The best strategy is to separate the main goal into many smaller ones and determine who is responsible for what. Goals shouldn’t conflict with each other and all of them should be achievable. Listen to what your team members have to say and try to make goals that connect the dots to one another in tracking to your destination. That way, all the members can celebrate each other’s success and build a great team spirit. Also, for the sake of that same team building, and the positive atmosphere in general, create early goals that will be easy to achieve. This will help people bond and make a good foundation for future work. Breaking things down to smaller goals also helps in breaking down complexity and giving you more control over the whole project. As a result, you and your team members will be less stressed, as focusing on smaller tasks will render the complexity of the project less overwhelming.

  3. Manage dependencies and interrelationships. I mentioned earlier the need to connect the dots. Project managers (PM) hate surprises, yet a good PM must prepare for the twists and turns, anticipate and mitigate them. Complex projects are characterised by links between different types of entities in such a way that an event in an interconnected activity can cause totally unknown effects on another activity. For example, I had a digital programme for a national agency with multiple legacy systems and with subsystems across cross-organisational interdependencies. This meant that I needed a fulltime project manager just for managing and tracking interdependencies. It is a specialism, as the Project Interdependency Management practice (PIM) is a combination of processes, tools and techniques that enables the PM to identify, validate, analyse, track, advise on, and report on the external project linkages. You cannot underestimate how entanglements across people, places, processes and policies can become key factors incomplexity.

Finally, adapt. And then adapt even more. You must be emotionally mature to successfully manage a complex programme. Complex projects are affected by external and internal influences. External influences can either be political or market-related changes, while internal influences come from changes in strategy, in individual behaviour, or any other internal factors. So, the ability to ride the waves and stay afloat is key. But do not be too harsh on yourself. Ambiguity is the Achilles heel of project managers because complex projects are hard to finish. Do one thing at a time and stick to the plan. Try to follow my ‘get rights’ above and you will be successful.

  • Ngozi is the Programme and Change Director of OVAC Group, a multinational business consulting company based in the UK and Nigeria. For more information, please visit:


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