Project Management in a Complex World

On today’s #PMChat, we spoke about project management in a complex and changing world. What does it mean to be working in an environment where the problems are unknown and the answers aren’t clear? How should we respond?

We drew on the seminal work of David Snowden and his Cynefin framework, which gives us a decision framework for complex environments. We talked about different types of complexity and ponder whether we should alter our project management practices in response to our environment. I’ve added my responses to each question in italics – feel free to jump on Twitter and add your own thoughts!

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To start with, we looked at 4 “types” of complex project environments – Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic – and thought about our experiences are in each.

Q1. Project Management in a complex world - Question 1Simple environments – these contain our “known knowns”. Nice and orderly, repeating patterns. Have you ever worked in this sort of environment? Did things run smoothly? What were project management practices and outcomes like?

I’ve never worked in a Simple environment, although I have been in projects which the Sponsor assumed were Simple; complacency set in from very early on & we failed. I think Simple environments are rare – our job is to scratch the surface and discover the risks and dependencies that lurk under the surface. We can turn any Simple project into something far more Complicated!

Q2. Project Management in a complex world - Question 2Complicated environment – this contains our “known unknowns”. We work through problems by using subject experts, compare opinions/advice & agree on the answer. Have you worked in this sort of project environment? Do you see this in your organisation?

To me, this is our bread and butter space, where Project Managers do our best work.

Q3. Project Management in a complex world - Question 3Complex environment – this contains our “unknown unknowns”. Lots of problems, but no clear answers. Competing ideas, emerging patterns, creative approaches. What’s your experience here? Can you think of any high profile projects that are in this space?

I’ve never worked in this sort of space, but I’m thinking of the planning and execution of Allied military commitments in Iraq or Syria. I recently saw a map of all the moving parts and dependencies in Iraq, released by the Pentagon. The complexity is “off the scale” in its mind bogglingness. Extraordinary.

Q4. Project Management in a complex world - Question 4Chaotic environment – this contains our “unknowables” – high tension & turbulence, constant noise, you just need to get things done! Have you ever worked in one of these environments? Can you think of any public examples of this sort of situation?

I’ve never worked in this space. Rudi Guiliani / 911 is the classic case. He famously said “I didn’t know what needed to be done, but I know we needed to do something”. He brought people together by taking immediate action to establish order. Command & control – look for what works instead of seeking the right answer, take immediate action to restore control, provide clear and direct communication.

Q5. Project Management in a complex world - Question 5Should our project management practice change to suit each of these situations? Should we have a “one-size fits all” set of core practices, or do we need to adapt our approach to suit the situation?

Snowden says we need to adapt our leadership to suit the complexity of the project situation. But I’m a huge believer in the value of foundation, core project management practices

So we have these 4 different types of environment – all with different characteristics. The challenge is to work out how to respond and lead our teams in these different environments. In general, we are drawn to the comfort & stability of a Simple state. But is that always the best place to be? => highest risk of complacency & nasty surprises.
In our last question, we thought about which environment gives us the best project management outcome.

Q6. Project Management in a complex world - Question 6Most of our project management work happens in the Complex and Complicated spaces. How do you prefer to respond to complexity in your project environment? Do you try to move the project to a different state or do you prefer to stick & manage from there?

I see many clients wanting to get to a Simple space & avoid Complicated/Complex because it feels safer, BUT there are risks with oversimplifying a complex situation. It might be better to acknowledge & deal with the complexity. Snowden said “when you make the complicated simple, you make it better, but when you make the complex simple, you make it wrong”. Complex is complex. I think it’s dangerous to step back from that.