Starting a complex project is a challenge for any project leader. There’s likely to be uncertainty around many aspects of the project, not least what the actual work tasks will look like as you get into the delivery phases of the project.
Here are 7 ways to successfully get your complex project started as smoothly as possible.
1. Set up the organization for success
Complex projects need strong organization structures. Make sure the way you arrange the work supports the need for delivery. In simple terms, this could look like ensuring team leaders have the authority to make decisions and that project managers are empowered to take action.
2. Make sure governance is effective
You probably already have project governance in place, but is it really effective? Are leaders simply looking at project reporting and nodding, instead of providing challenge and direction where needed?
There are typically lots of diverse stakeholders on complex projects, so governance is even more important. You’ll need to successfully navigate organizational politics and ensure a clear framework exists for decision-making so that individual agendas don’t get in the way of doing the right thing.
Governance also extends to the process for managing changes to scope, budget and time. On a complex project, you will definitely need to make changes, sometimes at short notice. When your processes are clear and efficient, and you have access to decision-makers at the right level, it’s easy to work through a change and take the correct action.
The best time to check that your project governance serves you well is before the complex project starts. A quick review of your project governance framework can make sure your project board has the appropriate level of authority and that project decisions will be made in a timely way.
3. Secure appropriate human resources
One of the biggest challenges with a complex project is finding the people to work on it.
Organizations don’t have people sitting around waiting to be given work to do. Subject matter experts normally have a day job, and unless you can free up these people from their normal daily responsibilities, the project manager is going to have a hard time securing their services.
If the project is truly complex and important to the organization, you need to resource it appropriately. Look at the available individuals within the company and what they are currently working on. That will give you an idea of who can be released for the complex project – and if they can’t be released right now, when they become available.
This analysis will also give you the resource gap. The resource gap is the difference between the people you have available and the people you need to do the project. Often we see projects where there are people available, but they are people with the wrong skills! If that’s the case for your project, think about how you can improve their skills with training and support before they are needed for their project role. If that isn’t possible, consider augmenting your team with expert contract staff to fill the gaps. Choose a reliable staffing company who can help transition knowledge back to your own colleagues at the end of the contracted period.
4. Build resilience in the delivery team
Complex projects can feel like a slog. There are challenging requirements and expectations to meet, and often lack of clarity about how to meet them. There are constant changes and issues because you’re dealing with things you haven’t had to work on before. The timescales seem to stretch out into the future and you end up wondering how long you have to work in this uncertain environment before things start to become clearer.
Resilience is one way to deal with those feelings.
Resilience is a highly personal thing, and you might not have ever considered resilience to be a core skill for your project team members before. However, it’s worth a team chat about what resilience means to you all, what it feels like and how it is demonstrated. Being aware of the need for resilience in a difficult environment helps people identify it and build on their own.
You can support the team to be resilient by not making it hard for them to do their job. Make sure they have adequate training. Make sure the enterprise project management software they use is up for the job, and can cope with the challenges of a complex project environment. Communicate a lot and expect the same from your colleagues.
Finally, think about what you can do to increase trust levels in the team. Team building is often seen as the simple, ‘go to’ option but it doesn’t work well with every team. You know each other best, so get together and talk as a team about what kinds of social or team activities you could do to help you get to know each other even more. That could be as straightforward as switching one daily stand-up meeting to watercooler chat only, or working through personality profiling-type questionnaires to give you a deeper insight into how each other thinks.
5. Manage the small tasks as thoroughly as the large ones
There are lots of activities on a complex project, and some of the smaller tasks like team meetings could end up being taken for granted. When the team starts to cancel team meetings, or regular progress reports stop being sent, there could be a very good reason. Or it could be a sign that larger tasks are about to crumble as well.
While ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ is a popular refrain in this office, as the leader of a complex project you should keep an eye on the small stuff! Make it easy to monitor project progress, using tools like earned value management.
6. Carry out regular lessons learned sessions
Take enough time to learn as you go. Don’t wait until the end of a phase or worse – the end of the whole project – to reflect on what didn’t go as well as you had hoped! Build in regular retrospectives and review progress along with lessons throughout the project.
Encourage the whole team to be reflective of what improvements could be made. Complex projects often have a long timescale. It’s worth building in those improvements where you can so you benefit from easier ways of working and better results during the rest of the project.
Tip: It can be tempting to squeeze lessons learned time when you are struggling with project deadlines. Don’t! If anything, when timescales are under pressure it’s even more important to reflect on what led you to that situation so you can fix it more easily and prevent it from happening again.
7. Manage risk effectively
Plan risk management into the fabric of how the project is run. Take the time to do a detailed risk identification exercise before the project starts, and update the risk log regularly with new risks. Use techniques like Monte Carlo to analyze the risk profile and inform decision making.
An external risk management support and consultancy service can help you do this step faster and more efficiently so you know exactly what you are getting into.
If you are planning complex projects, you can find out more about what you should consider before starting in Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide from PMI. And when you’ve had enough reading and are ready to take some action, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!