Projects aren’t Projects

Project management is not a one-size-fits-all process or discipline. The PMBOK® Guide makes this clear in Chapter 1. There are at least 4 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 complexity of the relationships surrounding the project.

Project Size
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 meters of overburden from mine sites with expenditures rising to several $million per day but the work is inherently simple (excavating, trucking and dumping dirt), and the relationships in and around the project are relatively straight forward. The management challenges are essentially in the area of logistics.

Technical Difficulty (degree of complication)
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 = The People
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. These ideas apply equally to small in-house projects as to large complicated programs. In this regard, complexity is not a synonym for complicated or large. It focuses on the inherent unpredictability of people’s actions and reactions to ideas and information within the network of relationships that form in and around the project team.

Size is straightforward and most organisations have processes for assigning more experienced project managers to larger projects. What’s missing is consideration of the other three aspects.

The last item, 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. However, I expect it will be some years before ‘complexity theory’ and project management sit comfortably together.

Of more immediate interest is the interaction of uncertainty and technical difficulty. 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. Some ideas on this topic will be the subject of my next post.


2 responses to “Projects aren’t Projects

  1. Pingback: Projects aren’t projects - Typology « Mosaicproject’s Blog

  2. Pingback: Complex Projects « Mosaicproject’s Blog

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