The rocky road to complex project success

Projects come in two varieties: the common-or-garden and the complex. But what makes a complex project complex? Julia Vowler reports


Projects come in two varieties: the common-or-garden and the complex. But what makes a complex project complex? Julia Vowler reports

A complex project, says Graham Madgwick, head of testing infrastructure liaison for customer migration at NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland, "goes beyond the normal capability of the organisation, it involves different parts of the organisation and has a number of new challenges".

Although every project is unique, a complex project will have more uniqueness about it - one complex project will be very unlike the last, or next one. For all that, one common factor all complex projects share, says Madgwick, is they carry extra risks which are all the more risky for being difficult to spot. "They are less visible, and catch you unaware," he warns.

In a large, complex project, there will probably be considerable technical risks, the worst risks will more likely be political and personal.

Key areas of care

Madgwick, who won the 1999 Project Manager of the Year Award from Project Manager Today, identifies two key areas where extra care has to be taken in the management of a complex project. First, you have to know, he says, who is supporting the project - it needs to be someone very high level as a complex project will cross departmental boundaries - and you have to know who the stakeholders are, who will be affected by the project, what they feel about it and, therefore, how they will react to it.

Secondly, he says, you require to know what resources you will need for implementation and whether acquiring them - again, inevitably from across departmental boundaries - will invoke resistance or, even more debilitating, inertia. Active resistance, explains Madgwick, can be less trouble to deal with than inertia, which can be less visible and those practising it can hide behind the project process, going for delaying tactics and subtle sabotage.

Risk assessment

In order to be able to get to grips with the risks surrounding a complex project, Madgwick advocates an initial formal risk assessment stage. "This is critical to identify the issues and pre-empt them, so they don't knock you off course," he advises. "You have to understand where the risks are coming from."

The risk you know about is less dangerous than the risk you don't know about.

Only when you have identified the sources of risk can you move on to diluting it. "You'll need to forge alliances, get support, generate motivation," he says.

Sometimes, however, the project manager cannot placate all sources of resistance and hostility. A happy ending is not always possible, he warns. That is why the project manager needs support at a very high level, to which he can escalate resolutions of conflict if necessary.

When searching for sources of risk, you will need to analyse the impact the project will have on staff.

Don't go into denial over the risks, even if the organisational culture would prefer you to do so. Problem areas, says Madgwick, "should be put on the table with a proper action plan". Ignoring them won't make them go away, and will only cloud the issue to their eventual resolution, happily or not.

The project manager must, he warns, insist that problems and risks are identified and officially acknowledged, and senior support guaranteed, or the project will become unmanagable.

"Don't undertake any project without support or it will fail. Not every project is achievable," he says.

For example, the project manager must be confident that he can control "scope creep". If he has no power to resist it he - and the project - is in trouble.

In that case, says Madgwick, "It can be better to kill a project early on and avoid (further) wasting of time - although organisations may not want to face up to this."

Having identified risks, and set up a plan of action to deal with them, don't assume that's it, says Madgwick. New risks can arise during the project and scupper it. "You need to keep [risk assessment] continually in view - don't think you've solved all the risks once and for all," he warns.

New risks can arise, and old risks can come back and bite you. For example, he says, the political scene in which the project is taking place can change or your key champion can move jobs and leave you bereft of his protection. One thing you must get from managers along the way, and your sponsor, is, says Madgwick, quick decisions. "Slow decisions can be a killer," he warns. When it comes to project implementation, the organisation must have a fast-track decision-making process in place for everything from approving the technical design to getting hold of resources.

But, warns Madgwick, "The decision process itself may not scale in line with the requirements of a large, complex project."

For Madgwick, the final ingredient for managing a complex project is, he says, generating credibility. Complex projects are difficult. If all those involved in a project, and all those affected, simply don't believe it's going to happen, then it won't, he warns.

"People get cynical and think it won't happen, so they don't take it seriously - and that's self-fulfilling," he says.

Winning hearts and minds will win support you need, down the line, to make the project successful. "If people believe in its success they will make it happen," says Madgwick.

Graham Madgwick was speaking on the management of complex projects at this week's IT and Project Management Conference

How to make a complex project work

To optimise the chance of a complex project succeeding, you need to bear in mind the following.

  • Projects become complex when they:- go beyond the normal capability of the organisation- involve different parts of the organisation- include a number of new challenges (technical or organisational)

  • The most dangerous source of risk will be political and personal

  • These risks need to be formally identified at a pre-project stage, and clear plans of action for dealing with them drawn up

  • The project must have a very senior champion, capable of driving by force over internal opposition. Never undertake a complex project without adequate high level support, or it, and you, will fail

  • Decision making must be fast -- it requires its own fast-track process

  • The project manager must have the authority to prevent the scope of the project gradually increasing

  • Risks may not be solved once and for all, and new risks may arise. Keep watching out for them throughout the project

  • Keep people believing in the project. Cynicism ensures it never completes

  • Be prepared to kill off a doomed project earlier rather than later.

  • Read more on IT project management