The rapid increase in technological capability, particularly in the realm of communications, is changing our world and how its business is conducted. At the same time, these changes are adding complexities to projects, large and small, in ways that were not foreseen even three or four decades ago. Not terribly long ago, most projects were done locally (with some notable exceptions proving the rule) – teams were co-located, the project manager had regular and direct access to project team members and most of the other stakeholders, team members worked in one or two shifts, and communications were face-to-face. Today, project managers and directors, even those managing relatively small efforts, face a significantly different project environment. Communications are frequently done virtually; access to global resources allows project work to take place around the clock. The rapidity of technological change places additional burdens on the project manager and their project teams as they try to ensure that their project’s product can provide business value in a changing business environment. In large or mega-projects, complexities are logarithmically compounded.
Increased project complexities are forcing organizations to take a hard look at the necessary skill sets and capabilities for individuals who are managing and directing these large, complex projects. In the early 1990’s while working at Digital Equipment Corporation, I was involved in an effort to define the changing skill sets needed by an individual moving up the project management responsibility curve (and, consequently, through our training roadmap) from the role of assistant project manager through that of a program manager. Not surprisingly, those who were in their early careers, managing small project teams, needed to focus on developing their technical skills (primarily engineering, hardware or software) and their “hard” project management skills (scope, schedule, time, and risk management). As they progressed up the chain of command, their focus gradually shifted from these technical areas to “soft” skill areas (interpersonal skills) and, as program managers, they additionally needed skills associated with business leadership. Increased project size and complexity demands a project manager with significant capabilities in the soft skills areas, as well as a good understanding of the commercial and financial aspects of their projects.
In an article by Luigi Slaviero and Hugues Mercier (of the executive search firm, Heidrick and Struggles), the authors note that:
The idea of a PM as a mini-CEO may seem a novel idea to some, but I would argue that that is what project management, except at the lowest levels of the organization, has always been about – leading efforts that cross the traditional -and frequently territorially sacred- functional boundaries of an organization. Let’s examine some of the incremental skills and capabilities needed by such an individual in today’s rapidly changing and competitive markets. To guide us in this journey, we’ll use the competency model developed and maintained by the International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM).2
We need to first keep in mind that the environment for complex projects differs from other projects, even from large, complicated projects, in a number of ways:
- The scope of a complex project may be unclear upon the project’s start, emerging only as the project progresses and subject to frequent change.
- While a political dimension frequently affects even a traditional project, this dimension in a complex project may emerge in unanticipated ways as the project progresses.
- The technologies associated with complex projects are in flux, and those in use at the beginning of the project may not be adequate (or may have been replaced) in later stages.
We also need to understand that while these differences exist, anyone hoping to undertake the management of a complex project needs to have a firm grounding in the basic skills and knowledge of project management as described by the Project Management Institute (PMI®) and/or the International Project Management Association (IPMA®). It is the skill set beyond those required to manage traditional projects – those skills that encompass the “leadership intelligence” noted above– to which we’ll now turn our attention.
A complex project manager needs to have a strategic focus. She must be able to develop a strategic vision of the project’s overall direction, communicate it to the project stakeholders, and make the necessary modifications as the project progresses. This vision will serve to motivate the project team members and key stakeholders through the ambiguity that they will face throughout much of the project. She must not “lose the forest for the trees” – get tied down in tactical decisions that need to be made on a regular basis. In his book Complex Adaptive Leadership, Nick Obolensky describes this as “devolving” - to delegate responsibilities appropriately throughout the project team, to stand back and keep a focus on the project’s boundaries and look into the project’s future, and to know when to step back in briefly to make course corrections as needed.3
Both the project’s execution and outcome will involve change – change for the project team members who must perform their work in the murky waters of ambiguity, change for the project’s key stakeholders whose power positions may be shifting as a result of the project’s outcomes, and change for the end users whose interface with the project’s deliverables will modify the way they do their work (or eliminate the need for their work). Therefore, leading change is a key skill for a complex project manager. He’ll need to be able to understand any resistance these stakeholders have to the probable changes his project will bring about, developing strategies to minimize this resistance and instinctively using crises to drive these changes. Stakeholder management through effective communication is central to this effort of managing change and, in the words of the ICCPM competency standards, the project’s journey.
A complex project manager must be innovative and creative in order to survive the “edge of chaos” atmosphere that is inherent in complexity. Additionally, she must be able to drive the creativity required of the project team in furtherance of its work while maintaining the team members’ morale in such an environment. This skill includes being able to identify opportunities for innovation as they occur, developing a project environment in which continuous process improvement can occur, and using benchmarking to ensure that bleeding edge practices are employed. This may also involve understanding the various cultures of the project team members in order to ensure that the environment in which they are working and the attitudes of those functional managers to whom they report are supportive of creativity and innovation. We have to always keep in mind that while working in this environment may become natural to the team members, it may appear threatening to others not directly involved in the project. The project manager’s leading change skill may be required to mitigate the perception of this threat.
Finally, there is a need for both wisdom and courage. Wisdom is needed in order to cultivate a comfort for dealing with the project’s full range ambiguities. While this wisdom may be developed by passage through significant life experiences, it is not necessarily tied to age. It’s a result of psychological and social experiences which may occur earlier in life for some than for others. It also includes a high level of emotional intelligence. I had the privilege of meeting someone who was a project manager on the successful MediaCity:UK4 project for Phase I of its development. While relatively young chronologically, she clearly had wisdom beyond her years and was able to forge innovative relationships with the project’s key stakeholders and team members in a project that was fraught with political ramifications and that involved innovative contractual relationships among many of the key contractors.
The courageousness needed to lead an effort like the MediaCity:UK project or any similar effort should be evident. Such an individual must be willing to take calculated risks to achieve excellence. She’s got to lead from the front while simultaneously “devolving” and trusting that her team members will accomplish what’s been placed in front of them. She has to shield her team during the difficult situations that are bound to arise in the course of the project and fight to ensure that they are rewarded appropriately for their efforts.
These then are only some of the incremental attributes and skills necessary for managing projects in a complex environment. Others are certainly equally important.5 One aspect of this skill/capability set that’s of some interest is its portability from industry to industry. When I first started out in project management a few decades ago, it was widely believed that a project manager’s skills were easily portable among various industries – that is to say, a capable project manager could be successful managing projects in several different industries, regardless of his technical competencies. That view has changed over the years, and it’s now widely accepted that for a project manager to be successful, he’s got to have a degree of technical credibility involving those technologies that are being used in the project he’s managing. In the Slaviero and Mercier article cited above, the authors note that, at least within the natural resources business sector (the subject of the survey their article described), once a bastion of “promotion from within,” an interesting change is taking place.
So perhaps the pendulum, at least for managers of complex projects, is now swinging back. Only time will tell. Regardless, the skill and capability set that those who intend to manage complex projects requires significant enhancement over that which is currently recognized in the profession. Many companies currently look to academia to provide the needed curriculum to meet these ends. At present, the only program of which I am aware to take this challenge head on is that at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia, which offers a MBA in Complex Project Management. Surely, over time, others will follow.
 Slaviero, Luigi, and Hugues Mercier. The New Project Leader: What Skills are needed for Megaprojects today? PM World Today, p. 3.
2 This model is detailed in the ICCPM’s publication Complex Project Manager Competency Standards and is available to members on its website www.iccpm.org .
3 Obolensky, Nick. Complex Adaptive Leadership (Surrey, Gower Publishing) 2010, p. 162.
4 Media City:UK is a mixed-use property site at Salford Quays, Manchester. With the BBC as its primary resident, it will provide state-of-the-art television production and transmission capabilities. The cost of Phase 1 was about £650 million.
5 For a comprehensive perspective, the reader is directed to the ICCPM Competency Standards referenced earlier in this article.
6 Slaviero, op. cit., p. 3
Carl has been involved in project and program management as a practitioner, consultant, and trainer for over 30 years. In those capacities, his work has taken him to many diverse industries including manufacturing, environmental engineering, banking and finance, construction, defense contracting, and ICT systems hardware and software development and services. In the last ten years, his primary areas of focus have been Enterprise Project/Program Management and its associated change management imperatives, and Complex Projects, a subject on which he and Dr. Harold Kerzner authored a book published in 2010, “Managing Complex Projects.” Carl graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and has M.A., M.I.A., and M.Phil. degrees from Columbia University. He also has earned a Grand Diplôme from the French Culinary Institute in New York. He lives near Boston, MA, with his wife, Ina, and their two cats.