Episode 394: Project Management is Hard. Complexity Makes it Even Harder. (Premium)
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One thing that every project manager notices over the course of her or his career is this: We begin with managing relatively simple projects. Here we learn about the theory of project management, its good practices and how to apply them. And as we get better we are assigned to bigger and more important projects.
But in recent years you may have begun to notice that even though your projects may not have become any bigger their complexity has never the less steadily been increasing. In other words, if you took a project you managed 5 years ago and repeated it today in exactly the same way then the one thing that would definitely change is the complexity caused by an increase in interdependencies.
And that’s where Jordan Kyriakidis (https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordankyriakidis/) and I are starting this interview. We are exploring why complexity is increasing, whether it is actually real or just a perceived problem, and what you can do about it.
This interview is 29 minutes long. This means that you can "legally" only claim 0.25 PDUs for listening to it, because in order to claim 0.50 PDUs the interview must be 30 minutes long. However... if you first listen to the interview and then also read Jordan's related white paper, then you can go ahead and claim 0.50 PMP PDUs!Click to download the white paper
Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.
Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to this Premium Episode #394. I’m Cornelius Fichtner. As always, Premium means that this interview is reserved for you, our Premium subscribers. Thank you very much for your financial support of the Project Management Podcast™ One thing that every project manager notices over the course of her or his career is this: We begin with managing relatively simple projects. Here we learn about the theory of Project Management, its best practices and how to apply them and as we get better we are assigned to bigger and more important projects. But in recent years, you may have begun to notice that even though your projects may not have become any bigger, their complexity has nevertheless steadily been increasing. In other words, if you took a project that you managed five years ago and repeated it today in exactly the same way then the one thing that would definitely change is the complexity caused by an increase in interdependencies and that’s where Jordan Kyriakidis and I are starting this interview. We are exploring why complexity is increasing, whether it is actually real or just perceived and what you can do about it. Enjoy the interview.
Female Voice: Project Management Podcast Feature Interview. Today with Jordan Kyriakidis, CEO and co-founder of QRA Corporation.
Cornelius: Hello, Jordan. Welcome back to the Project Management Podcast™
Jordan: Thank you. Thank you for having me back. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Cornelius: In our first interview we talked about Natural Language Processing, the word complexity came up a couple of times so we decided to follow it up with an interview on the increasing project complexity and how it’s impacting us project managers. How do you define complexity yourself in the context of Project Management?
Jordan: Well, that’s like a four-month long course (laughs). Can I go just on complexity?
Cornelius: OK. We have thirty minutes (laughs).
Jordan: I’ll give a closed notes version. There’s many measures of complexity. Some simple measures which I think are not very good is the budget, the length of the project, whether you’ve done it before and I’ve heard some companies say: “If we’ve done a project before then it’s easy, if we’ve never done it before then it’s hard”. I think a kind of measure that I use and I may be betraying my own background here is a good measure of complexity is not how long and what break down structure is or anything simple like that. It is really the interdependencies of all the different components of the project and if everything depends on many other things, then it is an example of a very complex project. I can give you maybe more visual image that maybe helpful. If you think of say—let’s say for example—of all the tasks you need to do just look at the word breakdown structure and you draw that as like a graph. You have a little circle that represents each task you want to complete and then you draw a line between tasks that are related or interdependent as we have all these circles with the lines connected to them, does that make sense so far?
Cornelius: It does.
Jordan: Now if you look at that and what you’ll see for a very complex project, you’ll see a lot of closed loops, a lot of circles and a lot of ways you can start at one note and traverse around and come back to where you started from and the more of those you have, the more complex your project is. You can imagine a simple project that is very long—say your project takes—ok, you say this project can take like eight years to complete but you can do everything in a very clear, linear fashion that the next task cannot begin until the previous one finishes and there’s one straight—like a one-dimensional path to completion. That—and it could be a very expensive project, it could be a very –but that is a very simple project, the structure of it is very clear. A complicated network diagram this is called, will not look like they will have like loops and hoop backs and they’ll just look like they’re very, very complicated.
Cornelius: So, is this interdependency the main reason why project complexity is increasing or is this something else?
Jordan: Yes, there’s interdependency or an interaction between different components and that is one of the primary reasons why projects fail or go far over budget or the time just gets blown out of the water. It’s because of this—because then what happens –you may have heard this refrain that it’s possible to make no mistakes and still fail. What that means is that if you have a lot of interaction between various components of a project, what happens is that you can have something go wrong and the error is not associated with any one particular task. The error is associated with how this task depend on each other and it’s the interaction where you have these problems arising.
Cornelius: How can our listeners recognize this increasing complexity. You gave us the visual of draw out the WBS and start creating almost like a neural network to see what connects to what. Is that the only way? Are there any other ways?
Jordan: I think that is a very good way to do it. I told you right away whether you have something complex or not. Another thing you can recognize complexity is if you’re doing—say in the planning phase and you start realizing that there’s actually many different ways you can like plan out this project into a safe schedule—let’s talk about scheduling, for example. You realize that there’s many ways you can schedule a project and you can’t really say one is better than the other, they are just different ways of doing it. That’s one little clue you can have that you are dealing with something that’s very complex. When you have to make choices, project managers are always making choices and your choices are between things that is not very clear—which one is better overall than another choice, right? It depends—one choice maybe better for certain things, not better in other things and so that is almost definition of a difficult choice. That would be another sign that you’re dealing with an increasing complexity in your project. Yet another one is if you start doing a sensitivity analysis and you find that small changes can have a big impact. Especially a big impact on something that seems very unrelated to what you changed. I see like there shouldn’t be any connection there but somehow there is. So, these are all the things that are signs that you’re dealing with a complex project and my feeling is that the project manager listening now who have experienced all of these with increased frequency as we move into the future in the recent task.
Cornelius: We’re all living in a more and more interconnected world—does this mean then that complexity is increasing on all projects or can you think of any areas where no, it’s not really increasing?
Jordan: I would say it’s not increasing on all projects but generally speaking, the larger project is—these days the more complex it is particularly there are some kind of –I would say—some projects that are almost always becoming more and more complex. And that is if your project involves a lot of technology, if it involves a lot of software and if it involves especially software or hardware integrated together into one unit. These are areas where I would say, are ripe with complexity.
Cornelius: Is the increasing complexity actually a problem? Is this not simply a challenge that we, project managers have to rise up to and meet?
Jordan: Well, it is certainly the latter—it certainly is a challenge a project managers absolutely have to rise up and meet. There’s no question of that. Whether it’s a problem or not I guess that maybe a bit a symmetric question. I think that it’s a problem in the sense that it makes the job of managing the project more difficult. However, it is not a problem in the sense that complexity is bad and we should not have it. And so, if you look at, for example—maybe I can argue by example and if you look at cars. Cars now are far more complex than they were say, a generation ago. There’s far more computer processing going on in there but generally speaking, this is a good thing. Cars are actually much safer now. Cars are more reliable now. Cars in almost any measure are much better and some of them are really getting less expensive too even though they’re becoming more complex. In that sense complexity is a very good thing but the poor project manager who has to manage the new technology in these cars for them there’s new challenges involved with it.
Cornelius: I read an article of yours about this complexity and one topic you talked about was the status quo. A two-part question here: maybe you can tell us a little bit about what you mean by the status quo of handling project complexity and also give us an example from a project that you experienced where the rise in project complexity meant that the status quo was no longer an option.
Jordan: Well, you can see the status quo varies from industry to industry and the status quo for example if we pick aerospace, the status quo for handling project complexity is you have all these –you generally have a review. You start off with a systems requirement review, you go on to preliminary design reviews, design reviews and then you go into actual implementation. Various industries have variations of the theme. You have these milestones that you have to meet and they are requirements and designs before you go to the actual implementation. The status quo, typically if we take, say, let’s dive in the middle of processing and doing a design review, if it is for big project this will involve people getting together in a big room and they’ll spend three or four days, all getting in the room and you’ll have project managers, you’ll have budget people, you’ll have engineers in there and they’ll put up—they’ll present the requirements and they’ll present the designs and they’ll discuss how these designs actually meet the requirements. They’ll go back and forth and discuss various scenarios and they’ll move on that way and at the end of the meeting, they’ll have a list of things that are things that need to be addressed, some action items that before the project can move on, all these open loops have to be resolved and then they can move on. When I say status quo, that’s what I have in the back of my mind. I’m not sure if that’s been your experience as well for typically how this is done? [talked ove]
Cornelius: Yeah. Pretty much.
Jordan: So the reason why I think the status quo is no longer an option is because –when will that work well? That works well if you have very highly qualified people in the room who are doing it for a while or experienced, they know what they’re doing and they’re working on a project that they have seen before, they know how it works out, they have made mistakes in the past, they know not to make mistakes again and if you have that situation they’ll say the status quo actually works pretty well. However when you have this complexity at a level not seen before, when every phase depends on every other phase, and every task within a phase depends on many other tasks within that phase and you’re dealing with new technology that has not been introduced before and you’re dealing with software infused throughout the whole system that you haven’t had before. Now people are less certain of where the risk lies and where the danger lies especially if the danger really lies in not just one error happened but a series of anomalies can happen in a certain order and then that’ll cause problems. It’s very difficult to actually rule out for humans and so in these cases you really cannot capture all the errors that are inherent in a document and what you find is that you have the design reviews and what will happen is there is going to be dangers lurking—dragons lurking in your project that you don’t even know about and so you don’t have any mitigation plans for them until you start building something and you’re deep into the implementation and you start seeing that things are not working the way it ought to be working and you wonder why. Why? Because you didn’t uncover it way back in the design stage. I think that was rather a long-winded answer to your question.
Cornelius: No, it gets the picture across quite well. So, how do you propose then that project managers handle or even thrive amidst this increase of complexity?
Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.