What is Complex Program Management?

Start by understanding what a complex project is and ask yourself if it applies. Nearly all large and many small projects exhibit characteristics of complexity. In complex programs, problems for management stem from the assumption that the outcomes, imagined at the beginning of the project, can be determined early in the project and then delivered as planned. This approach to project management only works for a limited number of project types – non complex types. Once a project reaches a critical size, time-frame, level of ambiguity and dependencies, standard approaches simply do not work for the entire project.

If this defines your project, you have a complex project and this will require a different approach. The key to handling complexity is to appreciate where the complexity originates, and the safeguards that your strategy puts in place up front, to undertake each element of complexity identified in your analysis.

As consultants, we should remember that programs that are hard are not necessarily complex. More often than not, most projects and programs will be “hard” if you, the consultant, are there. Companies do not generally hire consulting companies for soft-ball programs. Companies pay our rates when projects and programs are considered high risk, beyond internal skills, too big for staffing levels, or just technically beyond current capabilities. Most “complex” projects are ones, estimated by executives, which are or will get into trouble. Usually caused by cost, schedule or performance issues which require an unending amount of re-programming driving constant schedule changes, personnel changes and cost containment measures – complex, and hard by their nature.

As a Transformational Program Director for Dell Technologies, having worked and led several uber-large programs I would consider complex. It is my belief that there are four elements to program complexity, these are based on my experience in top 50 accounts.

First: political complexity, second: cost complexity, third: schedule complexity, fourth: technical complexity.

Politics: This critical element entails sometimes combating, sometime ebbing and flowing with corporate dogma, political alignments, commingled budgets, fractious-priorities, work-force atmosphere and executive sponsorship. This requires a detailed political agenda which constantly requires personally touching and communicating with executives and underlings highlighting the goodness of the project or program.

Cost: Money is always a complexity. From not having enough to complete contracted requirements, to how money is phased (milestones) into the project. Undoubtedly the most complex is getting it. Know your numbers by heart.

Schedule: Time is like money, there never is enough of it. Technologies or demanding engineering tasks that obtrude the critical path also obscure schedule because of the risks associated with them. Many projects cannot move from one phase to next without these critical path tasks completed. Understand your minimal viable product (MVP) and the critical path to deliver it.

Technical: Technology is itself a complex issue. First, divergent to the biological species, technologies are not “given” in nature, but man-made constructs built on the premise of creating some sort of a ROI. Technology is the product of cultural and disruptive revolution, rarely anymore just evolution. Technologies do still, evolve, this creates the need for backwards compatibility and regression testing. There are many other reasons the technical content of a program can cause complexity, such as technology, significant systems engineering, large complex software development, multiple integrated interfaces and interfacing with multiple complementary projects, programs, systems and users. Find and keep trusted resources close.

You are in a complex program when your arrangements as a manager have effects that are tough to predict, or present even, unexpected outcomes. Program developments come together so that it is challenging to see how root causes and outcomes share binaries, and it is demanding work to disentangle all the various characteristics in the final outcome.

So to this Program Director, the key to spotting complexity is to question it as outlined above, and the fundamental success to managing it is to understand where the complexity started. Once there, add safety measures via your portfolio of strategic methodologies to manage each element of complexity acknowledged by the analysis. And once compounded, these four complexities can submarine even the best and most experienced PMs. That’s why it’s important to have a scientific and systematic way of approaching and simplifying the complexity.