Differentiating normal, complex and megaprojects

June 9, 2017

The days when projects were simply projects and project success was defined by the ‘iron triangle’ are long gone.  The intention of this post is to try and bring together four aspects of current thinking and their embedded concepts into an overall model of project management in the 21st century.  The starting point is traditional project management as defined in the soon to be published 6th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide; the major change (incorporated in the 6th Ed.) is ‘Agile Project Management’.  The two significant extensions to traditional project management that go beyond the PMBOK® Guide are ‘Complex Project Management’ and ‘Megaproject Management’. The focus of this paper is on the skills and competencies needed by the ‘managers’ of these different classifications of ‘projects’ rather than the scope of the different concepts (more on this later).

As a starting point, there seems to be a generally accepted view that the competencies needed to be a successful project manager underpin all of the other concepts. There are some distinctly different techniques used in Agile, only some of which flow into traditional project management, but in other respects ‘agile’ and ‘good project management’ are very closely aligned.  Managing complexity requires a significant additional set of competencies that build onto the traditional requirements.  Then, whilst many complex projects do not meet the definition of a ‘megaproject’, every megaproject is by definition a complex project with an additional layer of management capabilities needed to deal with its impact on society.  This basic framework is outlined below:

Stakeholders

All forms of project management recognise the importance of the project stakeholders. Projects are done by people for people and the ultimate success or failure of a project is defined by people – all ‘stakeholders’.  My work on the PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition core team was very much focused on enhancing the sections on stakeholder engagement and communication (which is the primary tool for engaging stakeholders). And as the scale of projects increase, the number of stakeholders and the intensity of public focus increases dramatically.

A heuristic suggested by Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg is as a general rule of thumb: ‘megaprojects’ are measured in billions of dollars, ‘major projects’ in hundreds of millions, and ‘projects’ in tens of millions or less. To quote the late Spike Milligan, ‘Money can’t buy you friends but you do get a better class of enemy’ – and while many stakeholders may not be ‘enemies’, the ability of stakeholders to organise around a megaproject tends to be far greater than around a small internal project. Consequently the focus on stakeholders should increase significantly in excess of the increment in cost as you flow from small to megaprojects.

However, regardless of size, the need to identify, engage, manage, and deliver value to stakeholders, through the realisation of beneficial change, is consistent through all of the concepts discussed below. This and the temporariness of each ‘project organisation (ie, team)’ are the two consistent factors that underpin the concept of project management; and ‘temporariness’ is the key factor that separates projects and programs from other forms of management and ‘business as usual’.

 

Traditional Project Management.

The recognised guide for traditional project management is the PMBOK® Guide augmented to a degree by ISO 21500. The publicly released information on the 6th Edition highlights the need for flexibility in applying its processes, including the requirement to actively consider ‘tailoring processes’ to meet project requirements, and the value agile thinking can bring to the overall management of projects (see below).

The frame of traditional project management starts once the project is defined and finishes once the project has delivered is objectives. While this scope is somewhat limited and there may be a need to expand the scope of project management to include project definition at the ‘front end’, and benefits realisation and value creation after the outputs have been delivered (this will be the subject of another post), the knowledge, skills and competencies required to manage this type of project management are well understood.

Each project has four basic dimensions, size (usually measured in $), technical difficulty, uncertainty and complexity (these are discussed in detail in: Project Size and Categorisation). In the right circumstances, Agile can be an effective approach to resolving uncertainty. However, at an undefined point, the increase in complexity reaches a point where the concept of ‘complex project management’ becomes significant and really large projects are the realm of ‘megaproject management’. But the underpinning capabilities required to manage all of these extensions remains the conventional project management skills.

 

Agile Project Management

Agile has many facets. The concepts contained in the Agile Manifesto basically reflect a shift away from a ridged focus on process towards a focus on people (stakeholders) and adapting to change to achieve a successful outcome.  These concepts are now firmly embedded in the PMBOK® Guide 6th Edition and apply to every project. Where agile projects separate from traditional project is recognising that in a range of soft projects, including software development, taking an iterative and adaptive approach to understanding the scope can often achieve a better outcome. Understanding what is actually helpful to the client develops based on learned experience from earlier iterations and these needs are incorporated into the next iteration of the development allowing a better outcome to be delivered to the client. This is not significantly different to much older concepts such as ‘rolling wave planning’ and progressive elaboration – there really is little point in making detailed plans for work you don’t know much about. The difference is Agile actively expects the scope to be adapted to the emerging requirements of the client, the other approaches seek to add detail to the plans at an appropriate point in time whilst the overall scope remains fundamentally unchanged.

Agile does not even need a project to be useful. Many of the Agile techniques work in any situation where there is a backlog of work to get through and can be effectively used outside of the concept of a ‘project’, this particularly applies to routine maintenance work of almost any kind.  A discussion on the value of Agile, and its limitations, are contained in our paper Thoughts on Agile.

However, for the purposes of this post the key aspects Agile brings to the discussion, that are essential for effectively managing most types of project, are contained in the Manifesto – a preference for:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

The Manifesto recognises there is value in the items on the right, but values the items on the left more.

 

Complex Project Management

Complexity is a facet of every project and program. Complex project management skills become important at the point where complexity becomes a significant inhibitor affecting the delivery of a successful outcome from the project (or program). This point may occur well before ‘complexity’ becomes the defining feature of the project.

Complexity is a very different concept to a complicated project, technically complicated work can be predicted and managed; launching a new communication satellite is ‘rocket science’, but there are highly skilled rocket scientist available that undertake this type of work on a routine basis. As with any traditional project the costs, resources and time required can be predicted reasonably accurately.

The dominant feature of complexity is the non-predictability of outcomes. Non-linearity, ‘the tipping point’, and emergence describe different ways outcomes from a slightly different starting point can vary significantly compared to previous experience or expectations (for more on the concepts of complexity see: Complexity Theory).  Complexity arises from various forms of complex system, these may be organic (eg, a river’s eco-system), man-made (eg, an overly complicated system-of-systems such as too many interconnected software applications automatically interacting with each other), or interpersonal (eg, the web of relationships within and between a project team and its surrounding stakeholder community).  In all of these situations, the ‘system’ behaves relatively predictably, dealing with the effects of stresses and stimuli up to a point (and normal management approaches work satisfactorily); but after that point adding or changing the situation by a small increment creates completely unexpected consequences.

Interestingly, from the perspective of managing a project, these three areas of complexity are closely interlinked, the complex behaviour of the environment and/or man-made systems-of-systems feeds back into the perceptions of stakeholders and the activity of stakeholders can impact on both the environment and the way complex systems function. Similarly, dealing with emerging anomalies in the environment or in a complex system needs the active cooperation of at least some of the project’s stakeholders. Consequently, the focus of complex project management is dealing with the consequences of the inherently unpredictable and complex behaviours and attitudes of stakeholders, both within the team and within the surrounding stakeholder community.

Some projects and programs, particularly large ones, are obviously complex from the outset and can be set up to make effective use of the ideas embedded in complex project management. Others may be perceived as non-complex ‘business-as-usual’ and tip into complexity as a result of some unforeseen factor such as a ‘normal accident[1]’ occurring or simply because the perception of ‘straightforward’ was ill-founded. Underestimating complexity is a significant risk.

Where the project is perceived to be complex from the outset, a management team with the competencies required to deal with the nuances of managing a ‘complex project’ can be appointed from day one (and if appropriately skilled people are not available, support and training can be provided to overcome the deficiencies) – this maximises the probability of a successful outcome.  When a project unexpectedly falls into a state of complexity the situation is far more difficult to manage primarily because the people managing the work are unlikely to be skilled in complex project management, will try to use normal management techniques and most organisations lack the resources needed to help rectify the situation – skilled complex project managers are in short supply globally.

One initiative designed to overcome this shortage of ‘complex project managers’ and build an understanding of ‘complex project management’ is the International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM).  ICCPM’s approach to complex project management is to see this capability as an extension of traditional project management (as inferred in the diagram above). The ICCPM view is that while traditional approaches are insufficient to effectively manage a complex project on their own, you cannot manage a complex project without a strong foundation based on these traditional skills and processes. The relationship is described by the ICCPM as:

What changes is in part the way the traditional capabilities such as scheduling and budgeting are used, overlaid with the expectation these artifacts will need to adjust and change as the situation around the project changes, augmented with a range of ‘special attributes’ particular to the process of managing a complex project. These ‘special attributes’ are valuable in the management of any project but become essential in the management of complex projects.  These capabilities and competencies are defined in the ICCPM’s Complex Project Manager Competency Standard available from: https://iccpm.com/.

 

Complex projects can vary in size from relatively small undertakings involving factors such as updating a complex systems-of-systems, or a high level of political sensitivity, through to the megaprojects discussed below. A complex project may not be a megaproject or even a major project, but every megaproject and many major projects will be a complex project requiring complex project management capabilities for a successful outcome.

 

Megaproject Management

Megaprojects are defined as temporary endeavours (i.e. projects or programs) characterised by:

  • A large investment commitment;
  • Vast complexity (especially in organizational terms); and
  • A long-lasting impact on the economy (of a country or region), the environment, and society.

They are initiatives that are physical, very expensive, and public. By definition, megaprojects are complex endeavours requiring a high degree of capability in the management of complex projects.  In addition megaprojects typically involve a number of other facets:

  • Megaprojects are by definition a program of work (see: Defining Program Types).
  • Many are implemented under government legislation, requiring skills and knowledge of government processes and the ability to operate within the ambit of ‘government’. This is a very different space in terms of accountability and transparency compared to private enterprise.
  • Most interact with a range of government agencies at all levels of government from local to national. These stakeholders often have a very different set of agendas and success criteria compared to the organisation running the megaproject.
  • The size of a typical megaproject involves large amounts of money and therefore increases the risk of corruption and other malfeasance – governance and controls need to be robust[2] to maintain high ethical standards.
  • The ‘political attractiveness’ of doing a megaproject (eg, hosing the Olympics) distorts decision making; care in the megaproject development process is required to reduce the effect of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation (see: The reference case for management reserves).
  • Megaprojects are financially fragile[3] and fragility is typically irreversible. Once broken the fragile entity cannot be readily restored to its original function. Financial (or investment) fragility is defined as the vulnerability of a financial investment to becoming non-viable, i.e., losing its ability to create net economic value. For example, the cost risks for big dams are significant; the actual costs more than doubles the original estimate for 2 out of 10 dams; triples for 1 out of every 10 big dams. But managers do not seem to learn; forecasts today are likely to be as wrong as they were between 1934 and 2007.

Recognising the scope and complexity of managing a megaproject and training people appropriately can mitigate the risks, the UK experience around Terminal 5 and Cross Rail (both £4 billion projects) suggest that achieving a good outcome is viable provided the organisation commissioning the megaproject is prepared to invest in its management. It’s probably no coincidence the management of megaprojects and their associated risk has been the focus of the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford for many years.

 

Summary

The competencies needed to manage projects grows in line with the increase in complexity and the increase in size. There are definitely additional elements of competency needed at each step in the framework outlined above.  What is far less clear is how to demarcate between normal, complex and megaprojects! Every project has a degree of complexity and a degree of size.  The values suggested above to separate normal, major and mega projects are arbitrary and there is even less clarity as to the transition between normal and complex projects.

I suspect the domain map demarcating the different disciplines will end up looking something like this but there’s a lot of research needed to define the boundaries and assign values to the axis (especially in terms of measuring the degree of complexity).  Hopefully, this blog will serve to start the discussion.

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[1] Normal accidents are system accidents that are inevitable in extremely complex systems. The three
conditions that make a system likely to be susceptible to Normal Accidents are:
–  The system is complex
–  The system is tightly coupled
–  The system has catastrophic potential
The characteristic of the system leads to multiple failures which interact with each other, despite efforts to
avoid them.

[2] For more on governance and ethics see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PM-Knowledge_Index.html#OrgGov1

[3] From: Big Is Fragile: An Attempt at Theorizing Scale, in Bent Flyvbjerg, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management (Oxford: Oxford University Press)


New on the Web #17

June 4, 2017
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers, and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


Two exceptional workshops at PGCS 2017 – 1st May

April 20, 2017


PGCS 2017 is offering workshops by Dr. Lynda Bourne and Dr. Keith Joiner in Canberra on Monday 1st May. Both offer a unique international viewpoint on very different aspects of project management.

My (Lynda’s) workshop ‘Leading Successful Teams’ focuses on collaborative teams which are key to success in any business activity. The most effective teams consist of individuals who can work independently on their own tasks, but also recognise the need to work collaboratively with other team members toward the activity’s goal and the organization’s success.

The leader of the team contributes significantly to team success through inspiring all team members to work together to achieve this goal, but must also intervene to reduce conflict and to motivate team members to continue to work collaboratively.

This session will focus on the needs of first-time team managers and will consist some theory, and a little practice, on the following topics:

–  Motivation

–  Delegation

–  Giving feedback

–  Resolving conflict.

This full day workshop is based on my Master’s course I’ve been running at EAN University in South America for the last 5 years and offers exceptional value at $450 (catering and GST included)

 

Keith’s workshop ‘methods for test design and analysis prescribed in U.S. Industry & Defence’ will introduce and illustrate the new methods in test design and analysis are, and how they are used to:

– screen for significant design factors;

– model design factors;

– screen for operational factors;

– model operational factors; and

– where equipment is taken off-the-shelf, improve the efficiency of validating performance.

Participants will use an instructional toy system and study several example uses to reinforce how the methods work.

This half day workshop is great value at $330 (Afternoon tea and GST included)

Both workshops offer exceptional value and are open to everyone – you do not need to attend the PGCS symposium to enjoy these process…… For more information and bookings see:  http://www.pgcs.org.au/program/workshops/


New on the Web #16

April 9, 2017
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers, and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


New on the Web #15

March 16, 2017
Binnacle: designed to reduce magnetic deviation so a compass remained accurate.

Binnacle: designed to reduce compass error!

We have been busy updating our websites with Posts, White Papers, and Articles. Some of the more interesting uploaded in the last few weeks include:

These links are directly related to stakeholder engagement and communication.  A full indexed listing of all of our White Papers, Conference papers, books and articles can be found in our PM Knowledge Index.


How the chair can make a meeting ineffective

March 7, 2017

The chair of any meeting has a unique ability to destroy the value of the meeting!

Eight of the key ways to reduce the meeting’s value are:

  1. Playing favourites. Bad chairs tend to shut down some attendees whilst allowing others they see as politically important to occupy most of the speaking time. The outcome from this behaviour tends to be poor decision-making; bad chairs don’t care. Their interest is to stay the good books of the people they see as politically important.
  2. Changing the rules. Bad chairs keep the rules to themselves and change the rules when it suits them. They don’t give advice on what preparation attendees need to make or advise how the meeting will be conducted. While this trait may appear to appear to be a gambit to leave the chair in control, in reality it means the meeting is likely to be less than useful.
  3. Showing bias. When there is a vigorous debate between various groups in the meeting a bad chair will obviously be supporting one side.  Good chairs remain neutral whilst they may feel strongly about subject their primary function is to ensure the meeting reaches a consensus, not that the meeting reaches a decision that they predetermine as being optimum (although they need to be part of the consensus).
  4. Failing to define its purpose. Bad chairs do not define a clear objective for the meeting, fail to set priorities, and don’t circulate an agreed agenda. Good chairs define the purpose of every meeting with crystal clarity so attendees can come prepared and stay focused.
  5. Losing control. The hallmarks of a bad chair during the meeting include running over time, getting off track, get rattled, and allowing discussion to descend into personal arguments. Good facilitators keep their hands firmly on the reins consistently and politely guiding discussion back to the purpose of the meeting.
  6. Failing to communicate. Bad chairs tend to display no sense of appreciation for the points made by contributors to the discussion and tend to ignore many of the attendees. Good chairs are great communicators remember everybody’s name, include newcomers, and are excellent at active listening and summarising points to ensure everybody has a clear understanding of the current state discussion[1].
  7. Failing to make decisions. Deadlocks happen in most meetings, bad chairs cannot solve them. A good chair will either take a vote, extend discussion for a set (limited) period, set up a working party, or call an extraordinary meeting to deal with the item later; any of these options are better than allowing the meeting to waffle on allowing tension and confusion to grow.
  8. Failing to engage with meeting participants outside of the meeting. Bad chairs are missing in action, too busy to be involved with the delegates other than during the meeting. Good chairs recognise the meeting is part of a continuing process that requires responsive input and support between meetings.

Meetings are an expensive resource often costing thousands of dollars an hour to run. If you are the chair of the meeting, or are responsible for calling a meeting, you need to ensure the meeting is managed effectively to maximise the opportunity for success.  This is important for every type of meeting from a short team ‘stand-up’ through to company board meetings – the further up the hierarchy the greater the cost of ineffective meetings. Unfortunately ‘bad chairs’ seem to be common at all levels; the idea for this post came from an article by Kath Walters in the AICD March 2017 magazine focused on the behaviour of dysfunctional boards of directors.

Recognising poor performance is one thing, doing something about it is another; for more on managing effective meetings see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1075_Meetings.pdf

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[1] For more on active listening see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1012_Active_Listening.pdf


The Yin and Yang of Integrated Data Systems

December 13, 2016

Integrated project management information systems (PMIS) are becoming more common and more sophisticated ranging from ‘web portals’ that hold project data through to the potential for fully integrated design and construction management using BIM[1].  The benefits from using these systems can be as much as 20% on complex construction projects using BIM.

pmisThe advantages of this type of information storage and retrieval system include:

  • Ready access to data when needed via PDAs and ‘tablets’ significantly reducing the need for ‘push’ communication and the existence of ‘redundant data’[2].
  • One place to look for information with indexing and cross-referencing to minimise the potential for missed information.
  • Audit trails and systems to ensure only the latest version of any document is available.
  • Cross-linking of data in different documents and formats to assist with configuration management, requirements traceability and change control.
  • Controls on who can ‘see’ the data, access the data and edit the data.
  • Workflow functions to remind people of their next job, list open actions, record actual progress, etc[3].
  • A range of built-in functions to validate data and avoid ‘clashes’, including locking or ‘freezing’ parts of the data set when that information has been moved into ‘work’.

These benefits are significant and a well-designed system reduces errors and enhances productivity leading to reduced costs, but the ‘yin’ of well-designed PMIS comes with a ‘yang’!

People increasingly tend to believe information produced from a computer system, this is true of ‘Facebook’, Wikipedia and flows through to more sophisticated systems. There also seems to be a steady reduction in the ability of younger people in particular to critically analyse information; in short if it comes from the computer many people will assume it is correct. Add to this the ability of many of the more sophisticated PMIS tools to transpose and transfer information between different parts of the systems automatically or semiautomatically and there is a potential for many of the benefits outlined above to be undermined by poor data. This issue has been identified for decades and has the acronym GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.

The question posed in this blog is how many projects and project support organisations (PMOs, etc.) consider or actively implement effective data traceability.  Failed audits, overruns from scope oversights, and uninformed or ill-informed decision-making are just a few of the consequences project teams suffer from if they do not have full traceability of their project management data. This issue exists in any information processing system from basic schedule updating, through monthly reporting to the most sophisticated, integrated PMIS. If you cannot rely on the source data, no amount of processing will improve the situation! And to be able to rely on data, you need to be able to trace it back to its source.

tracabilityTraceability is defined as ‘the ability to trace the location, history and use of each data element’. This sounds simple but in reality can be very challenging, and the results of poor visibility can be devastating to a project. Some of the key questions to ask are:

  • Where did this data or these actuals come from?
  • What is the authorizing document and when did it get signed/approved?
  • Has everyone approved the change request or action item?

Traceability does not happen by accident! Project management information systems have to be designed with traceability as a key element in each of its aspects.  As information comes into the system the author or the origin of the information has to be recorded (preferably automatically). Depending on the nature of the information it may need to be quarantined until appropriate checks have been carried out and/or approvals have been obtained and then there needs to be traceability of any subsequent changes. The foundation of traceability is the combination of processes (people) and data management.

Therefore, the ‘yang’ of a sophisticated integrated project management information systems is that as the systems become more integrated and sophisticated people will come to rely on the information provided and ‘trust it’ whilst the source and veracity of the data used becomes less obvious.

Resolving this is partly process and partly people. The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has produced the Time and Cost Management Contract Suite 2015 focused on complex construction projects using BIM.  This contract defines a number of key support roles (largely independent of the parties) focused on managing the information flows into and out of the system to ensure its accuracy and validity. Similar roles and responsibilities are essential in any effective PMIS.

My latest post on the PMI ‘Voices blog’, From Data to Wisdom: Creating & Managing Knowledge highlights the importance of data as the underpinning of all reporting and communication.  So the question is, how much focus does your project team or PMO put on ensuring the data it is using is timely, complete, accurate and traceable?

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[1] BIM = Building Information Modelling, see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1082_BIM_Levels.pdf

[2] For more on planning project communication see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Mag_Articles/ESEI-09-communication-planning.pdf

[3] A discussion on how these capabilities can enhance project controls is at: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2016/11/26/the-future-of-project-controls/