Navigating Complexity – PMBOK 3.9

“Continually evaluate and navigate project complexity so that approaches and plans enable the project team to successfully navigate the project life cycle.” PMBOK pg. 50

There are so many quotes about complexity:

  • Complexity is the enemy of execution – Tony Robbins
  • Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple – Richard Branson
  • Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex – Albert Einstein
Simplicity in business as an advantage – The Context Of Things

We all know that to execute effectively, you and the team need to understand, in clear terms, what the project goal is and how to achieve it. But yet, we repeatedly have to navigate complexity and try to find ways to communicate potentially complex concepts in simple terms. Complexity can’t be controlled and can pop up at any phase of a project. A project manager and team, though, can adjust their reactions and next steps when it arises.

The PMBOK points out four common sources of complexity. For purposes of this post, I will focus on two; Human Behavior and Dealing with Ambiguity.

Human Behavior. Imagine walking into a room with a bunch of PhD’s in biology. Yep, I’m the dumbest guy in this room! This new project was for a biopharma company, and I was leading it. The conversation went almost immediately into depths I knew I couldn’t understand. After 45 minutes, there was a lull. My chance! I asked if I could simply restate what I’d heard. After I got done talking, I saw a couple eye rolls and at least one frustrated exhale. “Well, that’s kind of right” said one person, who then dove into the technical details again.

Biotechnology Subjects: Course Wise List - Leverage Edu

At the end of the meeting, one of the lead scientists walked up to me and said something profound: Beware of those who love to interject complexity. And this coming from a scientist!

People will make things complicated for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re super smart and love details, thus making communicating simply, difficult. Maybe they don’t know the topic but try to talk complex to seem smart. Maybe they don’t like you because you’re not as smart as they are and feel talking at a lower level is beneath them. It’s definitely easier to work with the first one that the other two.

When someone explains something in a complex way, it’s easy to get frustrated, but don’t. Listen. Pick out a few key words or concepts. Then, start your sentence with “So I can explain this simply to my team, what I heard you say is…”, or something along those lines. Let the person know you want to make sure you understand what they’re saying so you can talk to your team also. If someone tries to bring complexity to your project team, be the complexity police. Don’t let it slow down work or take the team off track. Instead, take some time to understand what is being asked. Don’t let human behavior derail your efforts!

Ambiguity. What came first, the ambiguity or the uncertainty? PMBOK calls them both out. For purposes of this article, though, am just going to focus on ambiguity.

Here’s the deal with ambiguity…every project has some level of it! If it doesn’t, it’s not a challenging project. It can be with you for the entire project, or at certain phases, or just pops up randomly when you least expect it. The more complex the project, the more ambiguity you’ll have. It’s always there!

Let me give you an example; new technology business transformation projects. Imagine you’re working with a company and your project is to get them off one of the first AS400’s ever built and onto a cloud-based system. Someone says “It shouldn’t be too hard. We only run a handful of applications on that system.” Within a week, you uncover 20 years of technical debt. Major complexity! The people who built and maintained the apps and data retired four years ago, and there’s no “owner” who can help the project team peal back the onion. Ambiguity abound!

AS/400: System, Utilities, Database, and Programming: Lin, George, Stewart,  Gayla, Ibm Books: 9780130830678: Books
If you see this book on someone’s desk, you’re in trouble!!

Thankfully, we developed a method of prioritizing the apps to be moved, and then focusing on one at a time. Every application had complexity, but with the collective intelligence of the team, we were able to dive into the details, drive out the ambiguity, and develop a path forward. No, it was not smooth, but it worked and over time we got better!

Complexity. It’s all around us. Our job is to try to make the complex simple for us and our teams to understand. Not an easy task! With human behavior and ambiguity driving complexity further into our projects, a leader will need to come up with tactics to find and communicate simply. Admittedly, this is not an easy task, but a skill required for success!

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Project Management Institute. (2021). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) (7th ed.). Project Management Institute.

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