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Aspects of Complexity by Terry Cooke-Davies

This article was inspired by Terry Cooke-Davies's Aspects of Complexity . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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How to Manage Projects in an Age of Complexity

“Managing a complex project successfully requires unconstrained thinking: thinking that embraces more than the standard textbook approaches to project management or the standard tools and methods.”

In a world of ever increasing complexity, managers have to oversee complicated projects. In a recent study involving over 1,500 CEOs, over half of the CEOs doubted that they would be able to deal with rising complexity.

As governmental and community organizations put pressure corporations, and the technical aspects of projects increase, managers have to develop new strategies to successfully carry out their projects. Breaking a complex project down into “manageable” portions won’t work as it would with simple projects.

Separating interrelated aspects of a complex project leads to more time and money expended on these sub projects, while producing possible errors in the final product. Managers must look at a project as a whole and understand the connections between its components. “Nonlinear behavior” among the project’s overlapping parts can distract a manager and produce undesired results. Creative approaches must be taken to complex projects, as traditional strategies will fail to keep a project on track.

To avoid errors in a project’s results, sponsors and managers must maintain clear, open communication. A US congressional report confirms this, as 80% to 95% of unsuccessful projects owe their failure to human error. The more teams involved in a project, the more problems arise. Managers must avoid flawed thinking and “optimism bias.”

How a manager reacts to problems can affect a project’s complexity. A quick fix to get workers back on schedule can actually lead to more dramatic issues over time. Rather than having managers address complex problems alone, an organization should be actively involved in its projects. Creative, level-headed leaders can help projects go smoothly.

In today’s world, there are not enough experienced project managers to deal with the increasing number of complex projects. In order to manage a $100 million contract, you need a project manager with at least 15 years of relevant experience, and for a $1 billion contract 25 years of experience are required. Now, companies are developing academies to train project managers to deal with complex projects.

Along with traditional management habits, todays managers need the three following characteristics:

  1. “Passive empathy” – Understand what the future holds for a project and prepare for changes.
  2. “Active empathy” – Fix problems today, so that they won’t get out of hand.
  3. “Persuasiveness” – Have a positive impact on those involved in the project.

Take the following five step approach to addressing complex projects:

  1. Determine how complex a project you are dealing with.
  2. Examine the pros and cons of the complex aspects of your project. If there is a better, simpler way to carry out a project, you should implement it.
  3. Unneeded project interactions should be eradicated.
  4. Inform the project team of all the complex issues involved in the project.
  5. Teach project management to use the methods that will best deal with complexity.

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