Planning for new and complex projects
The 21st century milieu is one of shifting paradigms, emerging technologies, and a range of trends that present dynamic challenges and opportunities for project planning. Many projects, in this context, can be described as ‘new’ or ‘complex’. A key question for project managers to consider is: How can companies achieve better planning and management of projects in an environment laden with uncertainties and potential for change?
What do we mean by new or complex projects? These are projects that:
- Deliver something never before produced or have never been produced in a particular form requested, in areas of advanced technology such as defence, aerospace, civil engineering, telecommunications, new information technology projects, healthcare, research and development; or
- Respond to collapses of infrastructure, systems and processes. This could be systems that failed after the global financial crisis or it could refer to aid/relief/disaster-related projects. This has become more evident in the public forum since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Current planning methods
Standard industry, government, and commercial project management methods have been developed within a relatively stable framework since the 1980s (PMBoK in 1987, PRINCE in 1989) with recent editions and updates since then. Typically, however, the planning process relies on first getting the project scope definition agreed by all stakeholders. This initiation phase is critical to the success of the project as it establishes the foundations of the project. Some of the key building blocks forming the foundations of a good project include:
- Confirming the business benefits.
- Ensuring that the deliverables and their associated acceptance criteria are agreed upfront by all stakeholders.
- Development of a comprehensive understanding of the basis of the pre-approval project planning, including the financial baseline, time constraints, risk, acquisition approach and technical approach.
- Determination of the appropriate project team structure and having the right people in key positions.
Detailed planning then commences by breaking down the components into sub-components to produce a product (deliverables) breakdown structure as far as breakdown is feasible.
Here lies some of the complexity that today’s projects face. The next step is to produce further detail of the activities, tasks and dependencies required, that is, the work breakdown structure, together with the sequencing of activities required to produce the many sub-deliverables or component products.
Finally, we achieve a level of granularity needed to manage the project on a day-to-day basis. This is typically represented as a schedule, which is only one component of the project plan and not designed for rapid change or the challenges that come from a rapidly changing external environment, whether that environment is climatic, financial, political, health or social. The rapid changing external environment has resulted in the myriad of ever increasing challenges for projects in all sectors today.