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How to Successfully Manage Project Complexity

Learn how to manage project complexity, common challenges in complex project management, and benefits of effective complex project management.

By Fellow.app  •   March 7, 2023  •   8 min read

Some projects your organization takes on will require more work, resources, and attention than usual. While these large projects might initially seem daunting, with the right approach, you can guide your team to success and deliver for your clients. In this article, you’ll learn the key components of efficient and effective complex project management.

What is complex project management?

Complex project management involves planning, executing, and delivering projects that are a bit trickier to handle than your team’s typical projects. There are several factors that can help you figure out whether you’re dealing with a complex project. While many projects might have some of the below, complex projects typically include abundant or high-level:

  • Task interdependencies. Project tasks are often related in some way, but the tasks in a complex project will have especially close project management dependencies with other tasks. For example, you might have tasks that can’t happen unless three or four other tasks happen at the same time.
  • Ambiguity. There’s often uncertainty surrounding a complex project. Maybe a client doesn’t have a clear picture of the project’s end result. Or maybe an external team is involved in part of your project, making it harder for you to create a definite timeline.
  • Variability. Complex projects often come with constant change. Stakeholder expectations, available resources, and task schedules are just some of the elements that can easily change with complex projects.

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Common challenges in project management

Below are some common challenges you might face when working through a complex project.

1Scope creep

Scope creep is a major project management constraint that happens when a project’s requirements extend beyond its initial plans. This can easily and drastically affect your budget and timeline, and with each scope expansion, your project becomes increasingly complex.

For example, a client might change their mind about what they expect to see from a project, expanding its scope. You’ll have to adjust your resources and timeline to fit these expectations. When managing a complex project, a large part of your responsibility lies in keeping the project as on track as possible amid these changes.

2Budget restraints

It can be hard to predict exactly how much money you’ll need for a project. This is especially true for ambiguous, complex projects. Plus, as the scope of your project creeps, so does your budget. Unless your organization somehow has unlimited funds, you’ll need to find ways to stick to your original budget while making room for necessary changes.

3Communication issues

Effective communication plays a large role in a successful project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, coordinating among stakeholders, clients, and team members can be a challenge when dealing with a complex project. You’ll need to ensure everyone is in the loop about all the latest updates — and there will likely be plenty of them. Plus, you’ll need to share this news accurately and in a timely manner.

4Increased risks

Risks are the “what ifs” of a project. Since complex projects are often ambiguous, they often have lots of “what ifs” attached to them. This can make predicting and planning for risks more challenging. The many moving pieces involved in a complex project’s life cycle increase the potential for risks to arise. Addressing any issues early on is key to keeping these variables in check.

Benefits of effective complex project management

Complex challenges aren’t always more than your team can handle. In fact, there are several benefits that come with managing these types of projects. When done effectively, you can put your problem-solving abilities to work and produce a top-market deliverable. Below are some of the benefits of effectively managing complex projects.

1Visibility at all levels

With effective project management, you can see exactly who’s working on what. This gives you a good idea of your project’s progress, which can help you assess and manage risks. With these insights, you can keep clients informed at every step of the way.

2Improved productivity

With the number of elements involved in complex projects, there are endless opportunities for your team to get pulled in every direction. When you effectively manage complex projects, you give your team members clarity on what they should be working on and what they should do next. This approach can help you improve employee productivity and team collaboration.

3Improved team cohesion

Effectively managing complex projects can help your team members communicate and collaborate better. When everyone understands where the project is headed, team members can work with each other to complete tasks and move the project forward. Each person can see how their tasks fit into the bigger picture and figure out how to support other team members during the process.

4Better risk management

While complex projects often involve more risks than a typical project, effective project management helps you predict and manage any and all risks. You can better analyze and prioritize the risks your team needs to respond to, keeping everything running smoothly and your team working proactively.

Complex project planning, preparation, and execution

Several factors go into effectively managing a complex project. Below are the key phases to initiating, managing, and delivering a quality complex project.

1Setting the foundation for success

To start, you’ll clearly define the results you want to see from your project once it’s complete. Here, you’ll lay out objectives and create a project scope. This involves pinpointing your deliverables and outlining key tasks your team will need to complete.

You should also decide what your project won’t cover — its limits — as well as its constraints. You should also take a look at your available resources and funding to see whether your team has what it needs to complete the project. Coordinating with your project’s stakeholders and your team is key to setting a reasonable timeline — and expectations — for your project.

2Managing stakeholder expectations and involvement

A stakeholder is anyone who influences or will benefit from the outcome of your project. Sponsors, clients, end users, and your team members are all examples of stakeholders. To identify your project’s stakeholders, consider who will be involved in your project, who’s supplying its resources, and who will use the finished product.

To keep everyone moving in the right direction, you and your team will need to communicate regularly with your project’s stakeholders. This way, all your stakeholders can share their feedback. Understanding exactly what stakeholders expect from the project is key to delivering quality results.

3Identifying and combating project risks

To help you maneuver around key obstacles, you should review your past projects to get an idea of potential risks. You should also have your team members and stakeholders share any concerns they think could pose challenges down the road.

With this information, you can create a risk management plan that helps you either avoid or minimize risks. For example, if you had issues with a vendor delivering a resource during your last project, you might want to choose another supplier. Or maybe your team thinks it will need three instead of two days to complete a software update based on past development projects. You might then plan to include that extra day in your project’s timeline instead of pushing back its deadline later and affecting subsequent tasks.

4Managing change in complex projects

Because complex projects often involve many task interdependencies, making one change to your project will likely affect several areas. This could affect your project’s scope, timeline, and end result. Clients might not fully understand this and request changes that could prove challenging for your team. Try creating a project plan at the start that lays out how you’ll manage requests from clients to manage change properly.

Before implementing any change, be sure that everyone understands the full scope of the change and their roles and responsibilities in executing it. Your team’s goal is to make the change without throwing off the entire project. This involves speaking with your team, reviewing your project’s budget, and taking a look at your timeline to see how you can accommodate the change.

5Tracking project progress and performance

Before your project starts — and as you assign new tasks — establish clear performance standards so your team members know exactly what you expect. Along the way, you’ll also need to know how far your team has come and how much work remains.

Tracking your project progress and your team’s performance is the first step to knowing whether you need to make any adjustments. Gantt charts and well-chosen key performance indicators are great management tools to help you track your team’s progress and measure its performance.

6Wrapping up complex projects

Once your team has checked off their to-do lists and you’re ready to bring the project to a close, you need to review everything. This way, you can truly put a big check mark on your project. Formally closing out your project tasks, documents, and contracts helps everyone know the project is complete. 

In your project’s completion phase, review every part of your project and look at which areas were the most successful. From there, you can figure out how you can improve your team’s execution and decision-making processes for future projects. Take a look and see whether your project stayed under or went over budget. Compare your initial product to the final result. Does it meet everyone’s expectations? Were there any changes you wish you could have made? Most importantly, recognize your team members for their hard work.

Complex, not complicated

A strategic approach is necessary for managing complex projects. These projects might have more variables and moving parts., but with the right management techniques in place, you can keep things moving smoothly. Using Fellow to streamline team communication via stronger meeting planning and follow-up, for example, is a great first step. It’s just one of many ways you can meet — or, if you do it right, exceed — stakeholder expectations.

Key Takeaways

  • Effective complex project management helps you facilitate a smooth project process from start to finish, even amid bigger challenges.
  • To best manage complexity, set clear goals for your project, keep stakeholders involved, and track your team’s progress along the way.
  • Sticking to a budget, informing stakeholders about your progress, and adhering as closely as possible to your timeline can ensure a complex project’s success.
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