I am often asked “how you do you know and what does it feel like to be in complex project”. When I think about it, the short answer is it depends, it feels different for everyone. This article is a case study that I did quite a while ago, it is a real project with real people, I have changed it a little to protect the identity of the people and project involved. The project has successfully delivered….. I hope you find it interesting, if it resonates with you, that is if you are currently in feeling something like this, I hope it might be useful.

He sat alone in his office gazing out of his executive suite window at a spectacular view of the Airport. He had taken over the leadership of the Program 12 months before and was reflecting on where the project currently was, what was being done well and what wasn’t.

He had just returned from a meeting with his boss and had been asked some extremely difficult questions that, although he had appropriate responses for, the fact that the questions were being asked concerned him greatly. The program had just suffered a small but significant schedule slip which translated into an inability to achieve the planned budget expenditure, his staff seemed genuinely unhappy and frustrated with each other. Some of his key stakeholders, and there were many, had expressed concern that the project was not delivering and the Minister was starting to become more interested and continually wanted update briefs.

He felt like all he ever did was brief people on what was going wrong, but they were doing some good things as well, unfortunately no one ever seems to be interested in those.

The project had been through a period of considerable uncertainty. In the preceding 12 months a new government was elected and had expressed concern over the previous government’s decision to buy the capability.  Similarly, every arm-chair warrior in the country seemed to have an opinion on the merits or otherwise of the capability.  Much of these opinions were being debated in the media.   

After project approval, a number of changes to project scope were being discussed outside of the project team and were only disclosed after deals had been negotiated at very high levels.  On a different note, the business case for the original support concept was being undermined by organisational inertia both within his organisation and in that of the provider.  The foundations of established policies were being challenged and this was creating confusion, and even passive resistance, among project sub-teams.     

He had noticed tension between his senior staff, he had decided to let them sort themselves out, but they had failed to do so and the program was suffering. He was hearing comments in the corridor about his leadership team and knew he needed to do something. The first thing he needed to address was the perception that this was a simple Commercial off the Shelf project, it was anything but. He needed some help!

What was happening:

  • No consistently understood or agreed direction for the design.
  • Lower level goals are ill defined and unclear.
  • Political agendas (internally and externally) affect decisions.
  • Limited agreement by stakeholders on project issues.
  • Inconsistent views between stakeholders, project staff and senior management.
  • Large project being delivered in smaller parts and multiple contracts
  • The structure of the organisation is unclear and dysfunctional. It is a hierarchical structure however some areas work outside the hierarchy without logical reason, there is confusion within the hierarchy on lines of accountability and cross functional responsibility.
  • Many inter-related and dependent tasks; Many risks are difficult to identify, track and manage.
  • Complicated communication structure leads to limited information sharing, lack of understanding, and individual frustration


Strategies to address the complexity identified:

  • Embarking on a culture change program to create a teaming and values based culture. Culture change is difficult and will not happen immediately. Establishing a culture that values open and clear communications, shared meaning and understanding, collaboration and teamwork is required.
  • Establishing a stakeholder engagement focus. Stakeholders can be defined many ways, a common definition is any person or group of people who can affect or are affected by something the organisation is doing. Not only do stakeholders need to be identified but how they can influence the project and how the project should manage them must be addressed.
  • Ensure goals are clearly defined and articulated. Goal definition in later project phases is particularly important in projects that did not have appropriate time and resources allocated to the project definition phase.
  • Establish clear, frequent and consistent communication strategies.
  • Restructure the organisation. The organisational structure must be clearly defined, functional, logical and understood. Clear lines of communication, accountability and responsibility are imperative in managing structurally complex projects.
  • Review of project schedule and risks to ensure all inter-dependent and inter-related tasks are captured, understood and accounted for.
  • Establish clear, frequent and consistent communication strategies.

Tactics or activities recommended to deliver change:

  • The leadership to engage more openly and frequently with the team to share information, updates, and knowledge. Instigate more touch points for human connections to create a feeling of ownership and belonging.
  • Engage and independent experienced facilitator to conduct workshops using techniques such as appreciative inquiry, soft systems methodology, strategy visualisation, SAST, to develop the vision, goals, values and behaviours statement for the program with a one team approach. This is not a tree hugging leadership and team-building workshop, this is targeted, specific and sometimes hard and confronting piece of work that establishes the simple rules and behavioural norms for the whole program, customer, supplier, user, the whole lot, it is not an internal only activity that the leadership teams in-briefs then leaves.
  • Develop a rewards program to recognise positive culture change behaviour as a specific category for recognition.
  • Develop a fully integrated understanding and management plan that focuses on at a minimum, stakeholder identification, stakeholder classification (power, interest, and influence), influencing strategies based on specific stakeholders and stakeholder groups and what they care about, key messages, communication strategy and tactics for each stakeholder.
  • Clearly define as much as can be lower level goals and ensure they are aligned with the strategic program and organisational goals.
  • Communication goals frequently, clearly and consistently to ensure focus and alignment are maintained.
  • Share goals with all stakeholders, and understanding where stakeholder goals or motivations differ from program goals.
  • Ensure when changes occur (and they will otherwise it’s not complex) that all stakeholders are informed of the changes and importantly the reasons for them.
  • Establish what type of organisational structure will meet the needs and requirements of the project utilising a viable systems model methodology. This technique works every time in fully understanding based on function what needs to be done for the system to be and remain viable. It aligns with the philosophy that form follows function. Note this is not a function to be completed by the HR folks, you must never accept a structure that is imposed on you, you must design the project/program in the best way possible to be successful.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities that are logical and achievable within the organisational constraints that you have. Sometimes this cannot be done via a template one size fits all. All PMs are not the same and are not born equal, roles must be customised.
  • Clearly defined lines of accountability and responsibility (there is little space and very little need for ambiguity here).
  • Review schedule and risk from multiple perspectives to ensure an understanding and identification of interdependent and inter-related task/projects/BAU activities and enterprise risks.
  • Empower the PM and Scheduler to question what goes into the schedule in terms of need, logic, achieve-ability and accuracy.
  • Create an integrated master schedule at the highest level that’s purpose it to provide, on one page (A3), a complete picture of the program, it’s progress and who is responsible.

How did it go?

The organisation did not implement all of the recommended strategies in their entirety, however; they made that decision consciously due to the time remaining. They did redesign the organisation as suggested, embarked on specific elements of culture change predominantly through a change to leadership practices, communications and connectivity. Knowledge sharing, openness and transparency became the focus and the simple rules by which they operated. Valuing relationships both internal and external as well as supporting each other to deliver created the environment that enabled the successful completion of the delivery, on time.


By Deborah Hein, Published on LinkedIn October 20, 2017