All projects are equal but some are more equal than others. Or was that animals? In reality each project is uniquely different and therefore project management cannot be a one-size-fits-all process or discipline. The PMBOK Guide makes this clear in Chapter 1.
There are at least four dimensions of a project:
- Its inherent size usually measured in terms of value;
- The degree of technical difficulty (complication) involved in the work;
- The degree of uncertainty involved in defining its objectives; and
- The degree of complexity of the relationships within and around the project.
The size of the project will impact the degree of difficulty in achieving its objectives but large projects are not necessarily technically complicated or complex. There are projects in Australia to shift millions of cubic metres of overburden from mine sites with expenditures rising to several million dollars per day but the work is inherently simple (excavating, trucking and dumping dirt), and the relationships in and around the project are relatively straightforward.
The management challenges are essentially in the area of logistics. Size is straightforward and most organisations have processes for assigning more experienced project managers to larger projects. What’s frequently missing is consideration of the other three aspects discussed below.
Complicated high tech projects are inherently more difficult to manage than simple projects. The nature of the technical difficulties and the degree of certainty largely depend on how well understood the work is. The important thing to remember with complicated work though is that systems can be developed and people trained to manage the complications. The work may require highly skilled people and sophisticated processes but it is understandable and solvable.
The degree of uncertainty associated with the desired output from the team’s endeavours has a major impact on the management of the project. The less certain the client is of its requirements, the greater the uncertainty associated with delivering a successful project and the greater the effort required from the project team to work with the client to evolve a clear understanding of what’s required for success.
This is not an issue as long as all of the project stakeholders appreciate they are on a journey to initially determine what success looks like, and then deliver the required outputs. Budgets and timeframes are expected to change to achieve the optimum benefits for the client; and the project is set up with an appropriately high level of contingencies to deal with the uncertainty. Problems occur if the expectations around the project are couched in terms of achieving an ‘on time, on budget’ delivery when the output is not defined and the expected benefits are unclear. Managing uncertainty is closely associated with and influences the complexity of the relationships discussed below.
Complexity: people, relationships and interconnectedness
Complexity theory has become a broad platform for the investigation of complex interdisciplinary situations and helps understand the social behaviours of teams and the networks of people involved in and around a project as well as highly interconnected systems. A degree of complexity is inherent in small in-house projects as well as large complicated programs. In this regard, complexity is not a synonym for complicated or large. It focuses on the inherent unpredictability of outcomes in complex systems, including people’s actions and reactions to ideas and information within the network of relationships that form in and around the project team.
Complexity is very much an emerging area of thought and discussion. For a brief overview see A Simple View of ‘Complexity’ in Project Management, and for some practical considerations of the impact of complexity theory on scheduling see: Scheduling in the Age of Complexity.
The interaction of uncertainty and technology
Knowing both ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’, or more importantly knowing how much you know about these two elements is critically important in establishing a framework to manage a project. One of the more established ways of describing projects is a typology developed by Eddie Obeng in The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook.
The typology asks two questions:
- Are you clear about what to do (the outcome to be achieved)?
- Do you know how to do it (processes, methods, experience)?
From the answers, four options are possible:
Painting by numbers
Traditional project management works well when both ‘what’s to be done’ and ‘how to do it’ are well understood by all key stakeholders including the client and the project team. Closed projects or ‘painting by numbers’ can be fully defined, estimated, planned, etc. There are low levels of uncertainty and ambiguity; risks are largely known and manageable. Value is largely achieved by delivering the requirements on time and on budget. A typical software project of this type would be installing an upgrade into an office where the same upgrade had been previously installed in several other locations.
Going on a quest
In these projects, the objective is clear but the way to achieve the objective is uncertain. At the end of the day, success or failure is clear cut; the objective has been achieved (or not). The challenge is optimising the way forward. Process and system improvement projects tend to fall into this category. The objective is to reduce processing time by 20%—this is easily measured on the completion of the project. The difficulty is determining the best way to achieve the objective.
Some of the options include improving the user interface, simplifying the work flow, speeding up network traffic and processing times or a combination of two or more of the elements. Ambiguity is low because we know what’s needed, but uncertainty is high because we are not sure how to achieve it.
Before committing major resources to the main work of the project adequate time has to be allowed to prototype solutions and test options before a final design solution can be determined and then implemented. The project needs to be developed in phases with go/no go gateways as the design is firmed up. There are risks associated with any creative design process and most software projects are ‘quests’ requiring creative solutions to identified problems to achieve the desired objective.