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Episode 140: Successfully manage complex projects with simplicity, clarity and focus

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Are your projects complex?

And if your answer is "Yes of course they are complex" then how do you first of all measure this complexity and second and more importantly how do you manage project complexity?

Is it just a question of using standardized project management approaches, PM processes or maybe a project management office (PMO)?

These are some of the basic questions that I discuss in this episode with Jerry Manas. Jerry Manas has been a guest previously on our show about various project management topics. Today we discuss how to successfully manage complex projects with simplicity, clarity and focus.

Click "Read more..." below to read the transcript.

PM Podcast Episode 140Transcript

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: This is The Project Management Podcast™. We bring project management to beginners and experts. Find us on the web at‑ or send your emails to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to Episode #140. I am Cornelius Fichtner.

This is The Project Management Podcast™ for the 5th of February 2010, nice to have you with us.

Are your projects complex? And if your answer is "Yes, of course they are complex" then how do you first of all measure this complexity and second and more importantly really, how do you manage project complexity? Is management of project complexity just a question of using standardized project management approaches, project management processes or maybe even implementing a PMO, a project management office (PMO)?

These are some of the basic questions that I discuss in this episode with Jerry Manas. Jerry has been a guest previously on our show about various project management topics. Today, we discuss how to successfully manage complex projects by using simplicity, clarity and focus.

Before we get to Jerry's interview, I have three quick announcements for you:

First of all, I'm going on a two-week vacation to Switzerland. We have this episode here on the 5th, then there’s a premium episode on the 12th, and then well, there is probably going to be a break, a two-week long pause where no new episodes will be coming out.

Second, Peter Taylor who was on the program in the last two episodes has given us two copies of his book: “The lazy Project Manager” and here are the winners:

First of all, Joseph Horowitz is the lucky person who gets it as one of our Premium Listeners. And remember, Premium Listeners are always part of our giveaways automatically.  And then, Mike Barnes is the lucky person who gets the book as one of our free listeners.  Congratulations to both of us!

And my last comment today is a clarification about the various product-related Podcast Episodes that we began doing this year. I received the following comment on The Project Management Podcast™ website from Ian. Ian writes:

Disclaimer: I think very highly of this podcast. I have learned a lot from listening to Cornelius and have recommended this podcast to friends and co-workers.

But this episode was just a 29-minute sales pitch for Dux's seminar. I like your interviews, Cornelius, but... not this one.

I'm looking forward to great interviews and episodes like you've done before.

And my response to Ian was this:

Well, yes of course, it was a review, preview and advertisement for Dux's seminar. That‘s exactly what I said at the beginning of the episode what it was going to be.

When I did the 2009 listener survey, a really overwhelming number of listeners responded: We want more project management product reviews and project management product information. So that episode with Dux and also the one that I did on January 1st where we talked about Margaret Meloni’s products was in response to this particular customer request: We were and are discussing a particular project management-related product. I mean, the first episode, those from Margaret Meloni and in the episode where Ian was leaving the comment, that was a seminar held by Dux Raymond Sy.

I always make it clear at the beginning of the episode that that episode is centered around a particular product, but I also try and bring in questions that are about the general concept of the topic and we always try and get questions from people on Twitter about the topic and not about the product.

I also want to say that if you look closely, you will see that both these product episodes in January that they were in addition to the regular episodes. So you got the two regular episodes and on top of that, the two product-related episodes.

However, even though our survey says that you want to hear more about project management-related products, you may not want to hear it in this way then please let me know. Please either leave a comment on the website or write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and don’t forget the dash in there is important.  It’s pm‑ Thank you very much.

And now, the interview:

Jerry Manas is the CEO of the Marengo Group.  He is frequently cited by leading voices in the world of business. Throughout his career as an author, speaker, and consultant, Jerry has built a reputation for taking complex information and processes; and making them clear and accessible. He is passionate about helping organizations conquer complexity through simpler processes, clearer communication, and more focused strategies.

Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Female voice: The Project Management Podcast’s feature Interview: Today with the bestselling author of “Napoleon on Project Management” and “Managing the Gray Areas” – Jerry Manas.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello Jerry and welcome back to The Project Management Podcast™.

Jerry Manas: Hi, Cornelius. Good to be here.

Cornelius Fichtner: Well, I always like you having you back --- you know published author and recognized speaker. It’s great to have you here. We want to talk about project complexity and let me begin with the complete basics here. Let’s talk about what complexity really is and is there a way that we can measure how complex a project really is?

Jerry Manas: Well first, let’s talk about what complexity is. Where I see, it takes on different forms. I see it mostly in three areas.

One is in complex processes and systems. So often, you have processes and systems. When I say ‘complex,’ I’m talking about things that tend to be overly complex. Another one is complex communications. So I see the processes and system, I see the communications. And the third area I see it a lot is lack of focus whether it is strategies, goals, a number of projects, just a lack of focus. So I think those are three forms that I often see it.

And maybe in project complexity, there are a number of ways to measure the complexity of a project like for instance the number of communication touch points or the number of moving parts or the number of interfaces, the amount of deliverable or risks, the existing knowledge and ability in the organization and so on.

But there are a number of models around that or in project complexity, but the problem isn’t the complexity of the project itself. Of course, we should reduce unnecessary complexity, but the problem is how we manage the complexity and that’s the complexity that I’m talking about is this unnecessary complexity in our processes, our communications and our strategies and how we can reduce that.

I think the key point is we can’t manage complexity with more complexity and that’s where organizations fall short. So many times, I see organizations, they just feed themselves with complexity.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. Okay. Well, let’s talk about these organizations then and later move slowly towards projects. What areas do organizations have where they need to conquer complexity? We talked about processes, systems, communications and lack of focus in regards to project. Are they the same for the organization as a whole, are they different?

Jerry Manas: I think they are very similar. Surely, you have business processes and forms. They tend to be overly complex. The internal and external communication --- communication to your employees, communication to your customers, there’s just way too much complexity there too.

Another one is vision and strategy. A lot of times, an organization will have such a complex vision or strategy and they have a hard time getting everybody to focus.

And in project management in general, I think project management is a key area for organizations that will tend to make things overly complex, but of course all of these areas – the business processes, the communication, the strategy, the project management. Those three items, three themes I think that span across all of it and then I would try the simplicity, clarity and focus. I think they need to simplify. They need to get much clearer communication that includes your forms, your processes, your strategies; and they need much clearer focus. I think you can boil it down to simplicity, clarity and focus.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay, simplicity, clarity and focus. Why do organizations and we, project managers, in particular struggle with this, with simplicity, clarity and focus?

Jerry Manas: Well, I think there are a number of things. One, I may have even talked about this before but I always love to talk about it. A lot of people talk about scope creep and I always talk about process creep.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes.

Jerry Manas: And what happens and the project is no exception. I think each group looks at problems through the lens of their own specialty. The result is really the dogmatism. It’s not a combined effort to meet the customer’s needs. It’s too inward-focused.

So in some cases, I think there’s some self-justification going on there too. I think each group, they’re focused inward. They’re not all focusing outward in the same direction.

In fact, there’s a great quote I like. The poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, he had a quote and he said that “Love does not consist in gazing at one another, but engaging outward in the same direction.”

I think the same is true for project management and organizations. We need to get everybody focused outward in the same direction and you may have a security department or quality department or this department or that department. Each one they have their self-justification going on and they’re developing their processes in a vacuum and they have a lot of redundancies. They’re really setting up a whole set of road blocks to get through in order to meet the customer’s needs.

As I mentioned before, I think people have a natural tendency to want to fight complexity with complexity too. And some of the studies that I’ve done even in nature complex systems have simple roots.

For example, one story was about an experiment at the Santa Fe Institute. You think to yourself, what if you wanted birds to fly in a flock and not get hurt? If you have a flock of geese for instance and you have to give them instructions. Because if you are managing all the instructions, you would have to give them.

Most people in the organizations would probably say - Oh, if you run into this kind of obstacle then you would be like buried in paperwork by the time you got through the instructions. But they did an experiment and they call these birds, they call them boids. I guess it’s the New York version or the Bugs Bunny version of birds, I guess.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes.

Jerry Manas: So anyway, these were virtual birds that they created in this virtual world. And they gave them only three guidelines. Nothing’s said to form a flock. They didn’t have any instructions about what if you’ll approach this or approach that or any specifics, they only have three rules.

They said (1) Try to maintain a safe distance from any other object including other boids. (2) They said, try to match the velocity of any nearby boids; and (3) They said, try to move toward the perceived center of mass of the nearby boids. So these three simple rules maintain a safe distance, try to match the velocity of the nearby boids and try to move toward the perceived center of mass.

So in the experiment, they formed a flock and they kept throwing road blocks in their way, barriers somehow. They were able to plant this in the virtual world and they were able to dodge everything and through any situation. It’s a very complex system that they created it with three simple rules. I think that’s an interesting metaphor for what we need to do in business too.

Cornelius Fichtner: Wow! Well, let’s take a look at what we can do. You said, it means looking out and everybody going in the same direction, right?

Jerry Manas: Right.

Cornelius Fichtner: To me, that sounds very much like standardization. So does standardization help us to deal with complexity on our projects? For instance, a standardized project management technology, can that help us to manage complex projects better?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

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Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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