Can project managers succeed at complexity?

Kieran Duck
October 18, 2021

In 1949, work started on the Snowy Mountains Scheme to provide hydroelectricity and irrigation waters to southeast Australia. The network of 16 dams, three reservoirs, seven power stations and 145 kilometres of pipes were completed on time and on budget in 1974. It was a resounding success and recognised around the world.

However, over the years, a problem became apparent. The system had drastically reduced the flows in the Snowy River and the habitat was dying. A campaign started in the 1990s to restore flows downstream. Elections in the area were fought over the issue. Agreements on targets were reached. These agreements then changed. The final target for restoring flows was ultimately achieved in 2017. This meant it took almost the same amount of time to reach agreement and implement new flow levels as it did to build the entire scheme.

This story points to the shift in complexity that is occurring. The hardest projects used to be about leading-edge engineering in harsh conditions. These days the complexity comes from, among other things, the diversity of stakeholders and the chance of decisions being revisited.

Why complex projects are difficult

We are failing at this type of complexity. In a 2017 study by The Economist Intelligence Unit, that surveyed companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more, “90% of companies failed to meet strategic objectives because they don’t implement well”.

This is the situation faced by many companies undertaking business transformation and innovation. For these types of projects, the standard approach to project management – locking in scope, creating a schedule and tracking progress against it – is insufficient.

The problem with the standard project management approach in complexity is that, at its heart, it takes an analytical approach to an intractable problem. It is trying to create predictability and certainty when there is none to be found. How do you develop a believable schedule when the timing depends on getting agreement from a set of stakeholders with diametrically opposed views?

The first step to address this situation is to recognise that complex projects are different. These projects have five characteristics that explain why the standard approach doesn’t work. Complex projects are:

  1. CONNECTED: Lots of interrelated parts with no clear boundaries, which means no single person can see the whole picture. They are difficult to divide into discrete segments and there are unexpected consequences.
  2. SUBJECTIVE: The same information leads to different interpretations because there are multiple perspectives operating in the system. The result is frustration because decisions get revisited when new opinions are added.
  3. UNKNOWABLE: Many elements can’t be determined before the project starts. You can’t guarantee how people will react to a change – will your staff reduction go smoothly or end up in court? As Kurt Lewin said, “you never really know a system until you try to change it”.
  4. UNIQUE: This team hasn’t solved this problem in this organisation before. The business might’ve been through upheaval before, but this time it is different – the problem is different, the leadership is probably different and the environment is different.
  5. CONSTRAINED: Every project is constrained, but in complexity the stakes are amplified by high visibility and consequence.

Understanding these characteristics can explain many of the breakdowns that occur in complexity. The connected nature means the more you pull the problem apart the more connections you see – as a result more detail creates confusion, not clarity. The subjective and unique character of the change makes it more likely to adjust decisions to satisfy a particular interest group or even reverse a decision when larger opportunities become apparent.

In these situations, you can’t rely on a purely analytical approach that is built on good planning and strong prediction, which is the DNA of standard project management. We need a way of thinking that copes with emergence and opinions.

How design thinking can help with complexity

Design thinking provides this alternative mental model. Not ideation sessions or mapping user journeys, but rather leveraging the design mindset in managing the project. Where science is empirical, with a focus on ‘what is’, design is generative and considers ‘what could be’. Science looks for evidence; design gives precedence to intuition and belief. Designers have the ability to hold multiple ideas and options at once and allow the time and space to synthesis the best. Design brings a way of operating that puts learning and adaption at the centre of the approach.

So, what does a design driven approach look like when managing complex projects? It will have a range of attributes such as:

  • —An approach that relies on the ability to sense and respond to the situation as it emerges. It will adapt the approach to what is happening and spend less time explaining why it has varied from the original expectations.
  • —Project leaders are focused on learning, they ask good questions and have the humility to listen, to give up knowing the answer and genuinely take on the opinions of others.
  • —Teams that are curious, take the time to understand all the elements, synthesise what they see and simplify the situation. They will build maps that make it easier to manage and interact with the complexity.

This is a sample of what a design driven project management approach looks like. To embrace it completely requires a new way of operating. This is not just a few extra workshops or having daily stand-ups, but shifting mindsets to be less about project control and more about curiosity and possibility. Project managers need to find the balance between taking time and making the space to understand the situation and finding a way to move forward to a result.

Project managers need new skills to manage complexity

This new way of operating leads to a whole new skillset for project managers. To function effectively in complexity, project managers need to be able to run conversations to understand differences in opinions. They need to be willing to test a prototype to destruction for the purpose of learning, not just try and show that it works. They need to be able to sense and respond to the situation as it emerges and treat the project plan as a thinking tool that is just the current point of view and likely to change.

Complexity can be frustrating when people change their minds and the plan has to be constantly updated. But this is the nature of the most valuable projects these days and we need to operate differently.

A design driven approach to project management represents a shift in the underlying narrative from prediction and control to learning and curiosity. When done well it lifts the performance of the projects and gives you the confidence to take on more ambitious, more valuable endeavours. It also improves the experience of project teams when they no longer have to meet unrealistic expectations of control and predictability.

In complex projects there is a balancing act between learning and moving forward. But adding the right mindsets, practices and skills to your project toolkit is a big step towards succeeding in complexity.

Adapted from The Complex Project Toolkit: Using design thinking to transform the delivery of your hardest projects (Major St Publishing, 2021).

Source mentioned:
Closing the Gap: designing and delivering a strategy that works‘ by the The Economist Intelligence Unit and Brightline Project Management Institute (2017).

Author avatar
Kieran Duck
Kieran Duck is an advisor and coach to senior leaders running complex projects and transforming organisations. He has redesigned and rescued multi-billion-dollar projects, and led business transformations. He is also a global presenter on using design thinking to drive step changes in project and business performance. He is the author of The Complex Project Toolkit.
Read more