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To kick off the Complex Projects conversation tonight, I am explore what we really mean by Complex and set some context before we begin to explore complexity in more depth; Is there a difference between complex and complicated?Before I get started, My name is Carolyn Limbert and I work as the Principal Planner for Harmonic Ltd – a professional services provider, working across multiple industries within Project delivery. I am an active member of the APM Planning Monitoring and Controls Special Interest Group, where we have been discussing the topic of complexity, and how it affects Planning and Controls within a project.My experience lies mainly within the Defence Sector where I have worked for a number of large Defence companies such as BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance on some of their most complex projects. I have also been involved in classified projects which introduces an extra level of complexity to the project environment
Present some different views – some of which you may or may not agree with but will be food for thought…An interesting analogy was quoted in a blog on the subject from a book by Mark Earls.He presented two situations and asked the reader to judge which is more complex – Mayonnaise or the Jumbo Jet? A Jumbo jet is made up of millions of tiny parts. If you had the time, patience, skill and a good manual, you could take the plane apart and eventually put it back together again. You can build multiple Jumbo Jets and be confident that if you follow a consistent approach and there are no extenuating circumstances, you can create a number of jumbo jets that can all fly and operate in a consistent manner. Mayonnaise on the other hand is different –It is the result of the interaction of its ingredient and the way you add them to each other. You cant take mayonnaise apart to produce the original ingredients and then recombine them. Any slight change to the ingredients, quantities, the method of adding them together, or even the ambient temperature of the room can have an unknown effect on your end result. Its not the recipes fault – it’s the element of the unknown, the bits the recipe cant tell you and to a degree, no matter how many times you make it, there will always be an element of uncertainty that you cannot control.So he proposes that complicated is reducible and re-combinable. Mayonnaise is neither one of these things which is what makes it complex.I know the system’s engineers among you may not agree with this but its one view to consider….What is very clear is that the element of ambiguity and the world of the unknown is the key differentiator between a complicated product or project, and a complex product or project.
So how does a project like a Jumbo Jet become complex?My view: People and the External EnvironmentPut a crew and passengers into the jumbo jet or a crew on-board of the rocket, then you need to consider Human Factors, and add other factors in like the weather and try to figure out what might happen on the flight. Try and plan for all eventualities. Suddenly we go from complicated to complex. You could study the lives of all these people for years, and the weather patterns for years, but you could never know all there is to know about how they will interact. You could make some guesses, but you can never know for sure. And the effort to study all the elements in more and more detail will never give you that certainty.
I spent a few years working within the Aircraft Carrier Alliance. Now this project is undoubtedly complicated. But is it complex?It has been quoted as being one of the biggest engineering projects in the UK behind the Olympics.On paper, you could argue that it is complicated rather than complex. The carrier was separated into modules or blocks, each of which are then built and integrated together like a large jigsaw. With enough knowledge and expertise, you could understand the intricacies of the design and the build standards. However, add into the mix;The fact that this is not just being conducted within one organisation, but within an alliance of multiple organisations, all with their own operating structures and processes The different geographical sites on which the carrier is being constructed and the logistics needed to ensure transport to Rosyth and then onward integration is a smooth processThe instability of the environment that the carrier project has had to navigate through in its historyThe volume of change the project has undertaken over the yearsSuddenly the environment and the factors that contribute to a projects success or failure make this large complicated build an extremely complex project.
Traditional PM dimensions can be summarised in the well known Triangle of Technical, Schedule and Cost. In order to be successful, you need to control these three aspects to successfully deliver a project. Now we all know that when you try and put that magic combination into practice, its not as easy as it looks on paper. Reality takes over, and as you try and control these aspects, other things get in the way.In analysing their project success factors, the Highways Research Program added another two dimensions into their view of Project Management, which they deemed are essential for the PM to manage and understand in order to be successful on modern projects;ContextThis refers to all external factors that have an impact on the project. Context factors can be some of the most difficult to predict and manage. Context includes stakeholders, environmental issues, legal and legislative requirements, local issues and project specific factors.FinancingIt is no longer sufficient to merely know the projects cost. The owner must know how the project will be paid for and integrate that knowledge into the scope of work. The mechanisms of financing can have a direct impact on the project design, the speed with which the project can be delivered, and the ability to achieve contextual requirements. Projects are often allocated a fixed cost profile which must be adhered to. This impacts every aspect of the project’s management.<READ QUOTE>So if the environment effects a projects complexity, what can a project manager do?
Any project will fit somewhere along the scale of complexity. In its simplistic form, you have Control vs Chaos.On the left hand side, you have a controlled project. Objectives are simple, processes are clear and things go to plan. You can operate best practice leadership and have a good result.On the right hand side is chaos. This is crisis point on a project, where risk events escalate quickly. The PM needs to implement rapid action to prevent collapse, and if this is not successful, there is often no way back.In the middle is where most projects sit. I said previously that two of the largest UK based projects which can be defined as Complex are the Olympics and the building of the UK Aircraft CarriersLets think about the Olympics as a complex project. London 2012 was delivered on time and within the amended budget. It was a heralded in the press as a successful complex project. But how did the management of the project contribute to its success?They provided significant upfront investment in scoping and planning the programme. They accepted that the front end of a project costs money. In reality, whether it is the private sector or the public sector, clients don’t like spending money at the front end. However if you spend more money on investigation and understanding what you really want, then there is a lot less risk of getting to the end and realising the end product is not fit for purpose. The established their requirements at an early stage, and could therefore provide a strong plan for execution.Interestingly, the Olympics also limited innovation, and avoided high risk, high innovation solutions to their issues, and opted for scaling tried and tested approaches. This decision actively stopped the project from entering a chaotic state, and instead focused on having experts collaborating and providing leadership. They also had a structure to allow for rapid decision making, which allowed the project to stay on plan.Lets look now at the Aircraft Carrier Alliance – Here, collaboration was high, with multiple businesses that were usually competitors working together for the same common goal. Alliancing was a new concept for Defence projects at that time, so the approach was experimental. However, because of the complex nature of the stakeholder map, there were often different stakeholder agendas, with each of the stakeholders trying to achieve different objectives. This made the environment difficult to navigate.The Carrier project due to its size and complexity, struggled with the definition and control of requirements. There were a number of design U turns which increased cost and also increased ambiguity.Decision making was slowed down quite significantly by the complex web of suppliers and subcontractors, and their differing internal operating procedures. Messages also had a high risk of turning into “Chinese Whispers” and as a message moved through the hierarchy, there was a risk of that message becoming distorted or diluted by the long chain of communication.This stopped the project from managing itself into a complicated state, and infact the design phase and a significant section of the build and integration stayed truly complex.This is becoming a regular occurrence in projects, and they struggle to “manage themselves down” the criticality scale.
To demonstrate what happens, I am going to shows the complexity scale in terms of what the objectives of the project are, and how the project is going to implement them.If you then take the APM project lifecycle and overlay the different phases over this complexity chart, then traditional thinking shows that you gradually reduce the complexity of the project as you progress through the lifecycle, understanding the objectives upfront, then implementing the objectives throughout the implementation phase. Both risk and uncertainty is reduced throughout the project lifecycle.
More often nowadays, you see projects that have incomplete undefined objectives right the way through to mobilisation and through into implementation. This means that the project is stuck in the “complex” environment with a high level of uncertainty as to both what the objectives are and how to implement them. This means that by some miracle, the project has to launch itself from an area of high uncertainty to an area of low uncertainty in one phase of the lifecycle – a difficult task, especially if your environment changes around you at the same time…
So in summary, Are we creating our own complexity through having poorly defined objectives and ambiguity in scope, and only clarify these well into the implementation phase when it is often too late and the project is already suffering delays and overspendsDo PMs need to manage projects differently to actively lower the projects complexity over time? Or do current processes and techniques, if well implemented allow this to happen?Then finally,Are Projects truly complex and is complexity on the rise? Or are the majority of projects merely complicated?
Thankyou for listening and I’ll pass you over to our next speaker.
Complex Projects - Carolyn Limbert
Carolyn Limbert, Principal Planner, Harmonic Ltd, November 2013
“I think the 21st century will be the
century of complexity”
What is Complex?
Building a Jumbo Jet?
Back to Basics
New view on PM
(Strategic Highway Research Program, 2012)
“The intrinsic complexity of projects, in part, is driven by
political, social, technological and environmental issues, as well as tight fiscal
pressures, end user expectations which may change dramatically during the
life of a project, and government instability.”
leadership, directive, r
apid action to prevent
usually no way
Processes are clear
Things go to plan
Risk events escalate
Innovation & learning high
Objectives are to be
To implement objectives
Adapted from; (Dombkins, 1997)
Objectives are to be
To implement objectives
Adapted from; (Dombkins, 1997)
Can we control Complexity?
● Do we create complex projects?
• Poorly defined objectives
• Scope creep
● Do PMs need to manage projects differently to lower project
● Are projects truly complex or just complicated?