Tools for Complex Projects

large scale project management skills

Tools for Complex Projects is not just about project management – but the management of complex and large scale projects. That complexity might be structural (building a large engineering plant) technical (developing a major new chemical) directional (a cross-national political initiative) or temporal (national oil supply during a time of war). The overall strategy of Kaye Remington and Julien Pollack’s approach to this subject is to examine the nature of these complex projects in some theoretical detail and then to offer a series of practical tools for dealing with them. There are of course other ways of categorising complexity – most commonly by scale or cost of a project, its duration, or the degree of risk to its owners. Their claim is that the four categories they have chosen are more fundamental and will cover any project.

It has to be said that the theoretical part of the book is extraordinarily dry reading:

During implementation, variance control must be vigilant so that stakeholders are kept informed of possible cost blow-outs. Techniques like Earned Value Management (EVM) a tool which links scope with time and cost, can be used to translate schedule slippages into budgetary terms.

Discussing the features of large and complex projects only really comes to life when concrete examples are used to illustrate the argument. It’s only when a chemical refinery, an ocean-going oil tanker, or the production of a full-length feature film hove into view that the picture snaps into focus.

The same questions are posed in each of these cases. What are the implications for communication and control within the project? What does the project manager need to do to in terms of team support, finance, scheduling procurement, and risk analysis?

In fact the larger the project, the more likely it is that these issues will be delegated to individual experts. The project manager however must have the skills to keep the larger picture and the smaller details in mind at the same time. S/he must have the capacity to be one moment an eagle, and the next a mouse.

The second part of the book looks at a number of ‘tools’ for dealing with the problems generated by complex projects. These in general are suggestions for defining the problems that arise using charts and ratings boxes; drawing up one-page ‘maps’ which show the ‘anatomy’ or connections in a complex system; and collaborative working arrangements (CWAs) instead of adversarial lump-sum contracts in the construction industry to reduce budget over-runs.

Some are fairly obvious such as splitting a large-scale complex problem down into a series of smaller discrete projects which are easier to manage and complete. Another is defining quite carefully the roles and responsibilities of project team members.

Multiple tools may be employed where uncertainties are created in long term projects (due to political or environmental changes, or financial problems arising out of volatile stock-markets. In such cases, a cost review might take precedence over an examination of delivery dates.

Risk-assessment maps can be drawn up to calculate the possible effects of worst-case scenarios. These look something like TV weather forecasts, where the arrows get bigger and are packed together more tightly – to show where the danger lies and where an emergency procedure needs to be put in place.

It occurred to me whilst reading this book that one of the largest and most complex projects I could think of was governing a country. I wonder if Gordon Brown or George Bush use any such management tools whilst simultaneously running democracies and waging costly wars – which we pay for. Somehow I doubt it, but maybe they should.

© Roy Johnson 2007

Kaye Remington and Julien Pollack, Tools for Complex Projects, London: Gower, 2007, pp.211, ISBN: 0566087413

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