Project Complexity and Project Management Methodology

The Complexity Spectrum considers the project characteristics that drive project integration difficulties. The higher the degree of integration complexity within a project, the higher the level of project risk. Projects with a high degree of integration complexity are likely to require more robust risk management techniques than those with little integration complexity. Some of the project management tools and techniques work well with simple projects but are unable to efficiently handle high degrees of complexity. Some project management tools and techniques manage complexity very well but are cumbersome and difficult to use on simple projects.

Complexity Spectrum There are many possible ways for assessing integration complexity. In our experience, two factors that are relatively easy to estimate prior to the development of a project plan and provide excellent correlation with complexity are a high level estimate of the project effort and a high-level estimate of the project duration. Neither of these factors needs to be determined with any degree of precision when assessing them for the Project Complexity Spectrum. A general understanding of the amount of effort, based upon an approximate number of tasks or deliverables is adequate. Also, a general estimate of the project duration will suffice.

The Project Complexity Spectrum differentiates projects into four categories, Simple, Focused, Full-scale, and Complex. Simple projects are short projects with limited scope and activities. Typically they require about fifteen to twenty tasks or activities in order to complete them. The duration may be from several days to several months. Focused projects are those with a major category of deliverables or business milestone requiring a significant amount of work, however, there is usually only one major category of deliverables or one business function involved. We sometimes refer to these as "100 day projects" since they often take three to four months to complete. Full-Scale projects typically require many major deliverables. The integration issues on these projects are significant. The hundreds of activities and deliverables require a high degree of technical integration. These projects usually are six to twenty months in duration. Complex projects include "programs" as defined by the Project Management Institute. They are large, multi-year, multi-deliverable, multi-stakeholder, multi-team member location projects often with multi-million dollar budgets. Given all of these "multi's" it is no wonder that integration is at the forefront of the project management activities on Complex projects.

Simple Projects

As sated before, Simple projects are short projects with limited scope and activities. Typically they require about fifteen to twenty tasks or activities in order to complete them. These projects are usually completed by one person or occasionally a small team. Normally there is only one deliverable and one major stakeholder that needs to be kept informed of project progress.

The characteristics of the simple project do not require the use of project management tools that are focused on integration complexity. The major project integration risk on Simple projects is that the individual doing the work becomes distracted by the other aspects of their job, creating errors and delays. The project management tools that often fit best with the Simple project are personal productivity tools. Prioritized tasks lists and network diagrams are excellent tools for planning the project. There is little or no need for internal project integration meetings since the work is usually being done by just one person. The only project reviews needed are periodic pulsing meetings with management or the stakeholder to report progress. These meetings are usually short and conducted informally.

An example of a Simple project would be an individual who is using plans in a "handyman book" to build a deck on the back of his house. He first plans out the steps that must be accomplished, obtains the materials and then builds the deck. The project is likely to be accomplished over several weekends. The Stakeholder reviews are conducted over coffee with their spouse.

Focused Projects

As stated before, Focused projects are those with a major category of deliverables or business milestone requiring a significant amount of work, however, there is usually only one major category of deliverables or one business function involved. Usually there is a small team of individuals who are assigned to this project. There may be multiple stakeholders for this project, but they typically are in agreement on the project charter. The project leader role is not a "full-time" position so the project leader is either one of the team members with technical responsiblities (for example - the database engineer) or a full-time project manager will be managing several focused projects. The major integration risk on this project is the technical integration of the tasks required to complete the project deliverable(s). Focused projects are often sub-project's within larger more complex projects or programs.

Focused projects require all of the basic elements of project management and they benefit from the use of a standard methodology associated with the type of project (eg. software development, facility construction, Six Sigma). When the organization does not have a standard project management methodology, a "hero" can still often manage this project to success. These projects should have a charter or initiation document, though it is often only one or two pages. The project leader role is part-time and the project leader is usually a technical contributor on some activities within the project. The project leader defines, organizes and staffs the activities with support from stakeholders and management. The project control activities will include appropriate technical reviews (usually only one or two) and regular reviews with stakeholders.

An example of a Focused project is the individual who hires a contractor to build a sunroom addition onto the back of his house. In this case there is a formal bid and proposal process and selection of the contractor. The contractor, who may also be the lead carpenter on the job, commits to a cost and schedule. There are several workers and other subcontractors on the project, including concrete for the foundation, electricians and carpet layers. Also there is a building code permit and inspection. The project takes several months to complete all of the exterior and interior work. There is a project plan and the home owner reviews it with the contractors on a periodic basis. The major risk issues are the technical integration of the activities, such as did the electrician finish roughing in the wiring before the dry wall was put up.

Full-Scale Projects

As stated earlier, Full-Scale projects typically require many major deliverables and hundreds of tasks and activities. These projects usually involve many departments within the organization. The projects should be managed by a full-time project leader who is supported by a cross-functional core team which is often located at multiple locations. In addition to the complex technical integration, the cross-functional nature of the work and the multiple locations creates significant team and organizational integration issues. Also these projects usually have multiple stakeholders with varying objectives, all of which must be integrated into the project plan. Since these projects usually are six to twenty months in duration,they will often be reviewed in at least two annual budgeting cycles. As budgets change and business priorities change, the project will almost always experience at least one point of significant re-direction.

Full-Scale projects require effective use of the full complement of project management tools and techniques. The complexity within these projects are such that the project leader is seldom able to "muddle his way through" the project. A standard project management methodology is very beneficial on these projects. The methodology clarifies for the project leader and the core team members what is required and who has responsibility for the various project deliverables. These projects are often managed in a phase or "toll-gate" approach so as to provide appropriate management oversight over the project progress. In my experience, all of the project management processes described in the PMBOK will likely be used on these projects

The focus of the full-time project leader is typically on communication and risk management. They are balancing the triple constraint of scope, schedule and resources (budget). The core team members are managing the technical activity definition and completion for their portion of the project. The project leader is tracking the issues that inevitably arise and to ensure the issues don't turn into major risks. The project leader is also spending much of his or her time communicating with stakeholders, both to understand whether their requirements are evolving and to inform them of the status of risks and mitigation actions with respect to quality, schedule and budgets.

Continuing with our home construction theme, an example of a Full-Scale project would be the design and construction of a custom home. The home owner would hire a general contractor and an architect. The contractor and architect would develop plans, including budgets and schedules, and identify building sites. Once the owner approves the plan, the contractor and architect begin the permitting process and identify subcontractors. The general contractor is balancing the work of all of the subcontractors, the overall cost and schedule, along with interacting with all of the regulatory agencies. As the construction begins, there are appropriate reviews by the owners and the zoning committee or permitting agencies. Inevitably, the home owner will want some changes as they see the construction progress. Eventually the home is built, the interior is decorated, the landscaping is installed and the homeowner moves in.

Complex Programs

Complex projects require a full-time program manager and they are best managed by subdividing the work into a portfolio of "Focused" and "Full-Scale" projects. Systems engineering and configuration management become crucial components of the project management tools that are used by the program manager. The overall program goals and objectives must be allocated to the subprojects and invariably tradeoffs must be made between subprojects in order to achieve the program goals.

The program manager for Complex programs is less likely to be personally using all of the PMBOK practices. He or she is relying on the subproject leaders of the Focused and Full-Scale projects to project manage those subprojects appropriately. The program manager maintains a high level program Work Breakdown Structure that shows the allocation of effort among the subprojects. Also, the program manager maintains a high-level, milestone schedule and the overall program budget. All of these are reviewed and kept current at regularly scheduled program reviews where each subproject presents their status and their major risk issues. The program manager balances the risk between the subprojects and watches for high-level risk trends.

Integration is the focus of everything the program manager is doing. The program manager will have a master schedule that incorporates the major elements of each of the subprojects detailed schedules. The program manager will have the overall program budget, allocated to the subprojects, with a reserve to address unexpected problems within a subproject or areas that are overlooked by each of the subprojects. Also, the program manager will have a program requirements document, usually many pages thick. In addition, the program manager will have created a set of subproject requirement documents. These map the program requirements to the subprojects and the interfaces between each of these are managed closely by the program manager.

Applying the concept of a Complex program to the home construction example that has been used with the other project types leads us to the construction of a large subdivision. The program manager is integrating with all of the construction managers on each house and working with zoning committees. The program manager must ensure that roads and utilities are being installed. They also need to integrate all of these activities so that multiple things are happening at the same time without interfering with each other. For instance, when the road crew is paving, the individuals working on home construction still need to be able to get to their job site. Integration is the key to success so that each house construction project can maintain their schedule and the infrastructure of the subdivision can be installed on time and on budget.


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