Getting in Over Your Head: Characteristics of a Complex Project

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The Challenges PMs Face

Overly complex projects form one of the many project management challenges project managers face. You’ll know you’ve got one when you find yourself overwhelmed as you begin to decompose the project.

  • Often, these types of projects are actually meta-projects. What I mean by this phrasing is that it is a project that contains two or more sub-projects that need separate management.
  • A second cause for overly complex projects is that in the project statement, the definition or scope is too abstract. This abstractness makes it very difficult to define the steps, deliverables, and milestones for your project.
  • A final reason a project might be overly complex is that team members lack the training or knowledge to bring the project to completion.

Identifying the Meta-Project

As mentioned, the meta-project is really a project that breaks down into multiple smaller projects. When decomposing the project, you will find that it appears to be an endless task - and that many of the milestones or deliverables break down into their own tasks - making it look like you have an upside-down tree. This is perhaps the easiest of the overly complex projects to correct. If, for example, you are creating a television pilot, there are several sub-projects like casting, script creation, market research, idea-pitching, filming, editing, etc. In a case like this, rather than attempting to manage the whole “television pilot” project, if you break it up into two main projects - filming the pilot and pitching the pilot - the task will be easier. By grouping similar activities together in their own project, you can avoid feeling as though too many balls are in the air.

Identifying the Abstract Project

The abstract project is the one where when you sit down to decompose the steps you find that you don’t even know what the proper steps should be. You may come up with one or two actions that must be completed and hit a wall. This is one of the more difficult problems to correct because you have to take it back to the drawing board. Often, an abstract project stems from a team demonstrating poor planning capabilities. For example, you may have a project statement like “Increase profit margins in the software sector.” The best way to fix the abstract project is to be as detailed as possible in your project scope.

Identifying the In-Over-Our-Heads Project

Sometimes a project exceeds what your staff is capable of. If you have a team of five people, you most likely cannot create a feature-length animation in six months. If your company wants to create software to accompany a television program, it won’t be able to do this unless there are programmers on staff. If your company wants to create a new perfume, unless they have chemists working for them, they will lack the know-how. Sometimes, identifying the in-over-our-heads project is this obvious.

Other times, it isn’t. When you assign tasks to team members, often it will take much longer than it should if they aren’t properly trained or if they lack the proper knowledge. You will hear complaints over coffee in the morning that they don’t have the resources to complete task X on time. This could be related to poor project planning, but it could also be related to over-burdened team members. One way to correct this problem is to level resources. Another way to correct it is to hire the needed staff members on either a contract or full-time basis.

You will also want to refer to this article on avoiding the overly complex project.

This post is part of the series: Avoiding the Complex Project

This series discusses how to identify and avoid complex projects.

  1. Identifying the Overly Complex Project: When Is It Too Much?
  2. Avoiding the Overly Complex Project