Project Management

5 Valuable Skills You Need to Manage Complex Projects

Tera Simon
December 5, 2016
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I still remember the day I was assigned a project that I thought would kill me.

I was 25 and working as a Senior Project Manager for a small gaming company in NYC.  I was asked to oversee the full development of a 2MM contract.

The video game would be used in over 400 classrooms throughout the US to educate high school students on business and accounting. We planned for over 100 unique characters, were slated to write a six-week course curriculum, and provide players with custom-build avatars.

This was the most complex project we had ever tried to tackle, and we realized we had bitten off more than we could chew.

As the PM I began to ask myself, "Why me?"

In an instant I had the answer to that question: I thrive off of complexity. I enjoy untangling the most complex project and making it tangible.

What makes a project complex?

There is a difference between a complex project and a difficult project, and it is important to understand the difference.

A complex project isn’t necessarily a difficult project. Projects can be difficult due to reasons such as cost or performance, but this doesn’t automatically mean the project is complex.

Complexity refers to projects that include ambiguity or uncertainty. They are surrounded with unpredictability.  Other indicators of a complex project include:

  • Involvement of many teams & stakeholders
  • Numerous moving parts
  • Project timeline
  • Budget / restraints

After identifying the complexity level of your project, it’s time to use your skills to tackle the beast one bite at a time.

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The essential skills you need to manage complex projects

Managing a complex project requires more than the ability to herd cats and spin plates.  This is just one of the many skills needed for project management. Others include:

  1. Adaptability
  2. Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Expertise
  5. Leadership

To be successful you must be adaptable. A project is constantly evolving and project managers have be evolve with it. This means not always thinking in black and white terms. There will come a time when you have to adjust and flex you project management style when the situation changes.

Communication is probably the most important skill of a PM. Over 90% of a PM’s time is spent communicating. It is essential that PMs can effectively convey vision, ideas, goals and issues, as well as producing reports and presentations.

Communication goes beyond documentation. It also requires building a relationship with your client and your team. If they don’t trust you, the project will fail. You must be willing to collaborate with your team. Working with others to get things done is important on all projects and never more so than on something that is really challenging. You cannot be successful by yourself. Work with your team and client to achieve success.

Lastly, leadership and expertise go hand-in-hand. If you can lead, you can deliver. Leadership is all about guiding, directing and motivating your team to do their best work and understand how their tasks contribute to the overall vision.

Leadership comes with experience. Neither skills can be taught. They develop overtime from real-life, practical experience.

Having these essential skills is the backbone for identifying what makes a project complex and how to navigate the water.

Let's now put these concepts into concrete action.

1. Document. Document. Document.

A project may be broken down into the most perfectly manageable mini-projects, but without clear documentation on the individual pieces and how they relate to the whole, the project remains opaque and complex to anyone aside from the main project manager.

Clear, up-to-date documentation is the insurance against this issue. It defines everyone’s roles and their deliverables and ensures that the overall vision isn’t trapped inside someone’s head. If someone new needs to come on board at any stage of the project, in any role, there is a clear roadmap outlining where the project has been and where it’s going. To ensure your team is up to speed, create a high-level timeline in PowerPoint to show the team’s overall process as well as a detailed gantt chart with individual tasks using a tool like TeamGantt.

As the project manager it is your job to document everything. Every week send out a project status to the full team. By providing clear documentation, both your team and your stakeholders can stay informed throughout the entire project lifecycle.

2. Continuously clarify your goals.

If you do not understand the “why” behind your project, you will not be successful.

Understanding the why brings clarity to the goal(s) of the project. It allows the entire team to find ways to innovate and bring their own areas of expertise to the table.

Project Managers tend to focus on delegating tasks. Our minds fall into a divide and conquer mindset.  As the leader, you are expected to paint the bigger picture of the project for your team.

Don’t be afraid to push your team outside of their comfort zone, but also remember that people aren’t machines.

If we are constantly delegating tasks without clearly defined goals, our team will fail. It is important to pick our heads up and continuously clarify project goals. When your team understands their roles and the task at hand, they are able to dive directly into execution mode.

Clarifying your goals to ensure your project works remained aligned with the initial premise - not just once, but continuously. Remember and accept that you will not know all the answers, but push to explore all possible outcomes and what that would mean for the project.

3. Create more visibility.

When navigating complex challenges, teams often find themselves bogged down in the project details. It becomes a struggle to move forward when you’re buried under too much information.

To create more visibility within a project, adapt a project management tool that works best for you, your team and your client. This tool will allow everyone on the project to stay informed and see what is happening. Use this as your single source of information. This type of tool will provide real-time insight into the decisions and activities that are relevant to each member of the team.

Additionally, our teams have adopted process mapping for our complex projects.

The process map is a visual representation of the forecasted project roadmap. It allows both our team and our client to know where we are in the project and what activities are planned. Having a physical copy printed and hanging on a wall helps our teams facilitate huddles and planning meetings.

We are able to point directly to our current status and identify dependencies and risks in real time. This keeps us on track and the client informed.

4. Be flexible.

The only constant in complex projects is change. I don’t care how amazing you think your project plan is, it will change. If you are not willing to adapt and be flexible for the sake of your client, you risk losing them.

Plan for unknowns, pivots and adjustments early on and set up processes that allows your team to remain nimble and respond to changing demands.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”—George Bernard Shaw

There is no such thing as over communication as project managers. We have lots of ways to communicate and the most popular methods don’t require you to open your mouth. Find out what style of communication works best for your project and stick with it.

If digital communication works best, go with it, but never assume your team is reading everything you write.  If you are not getting results, be proactive in your communication. There are times when it is necessary to have face to face conversations. It will help ensure the message is not loss through back channels and that the team is clear on the objective.

Moral of the story

Remember why you do what you do. You may waffle and second guess a decision that you’ve made, but at the end of the day every complex project needs a PM.

The short answer is this: The Project Manager either adds value (making stuff more efficient and effective) or reduces risk (without a project manager, bad things are going to happen).

The PM takes care of communication. He or she is the human shield between you and the development team, ensuring the team can work effectively without too many interruptions.

Never settle and never accept the constraints imposed upon you.  Remember that you have more power than you think.

At the end of the day, everything turned out alright at the 2MM video game.

We realized we couldn’t be everything to everyone. We hired additional help. Had a lot of tough conversations, but we launched the game.

We ended up creating a high school course curriculum that ran for 6 weeks in over 400 schools nationwide.

We wowed the client.