Earlier this week I shared with you a graphic from the project complexity debate I spoke at. This was the debate motion:

Effective approaches to project communication cannot keep up with the dynamic complexity of the project environment.

Broadly speaking, much of the discussion centred on refuting this statement, and I certainly argued that as well.

I disagreed with the debate motion.  If an approach is effective by default it has to be useful and therefore will be keeping up with the environment. But that’s semantics.

Taking the spirit of the question, the first useful thing to do is to agree about what contributes to complexity in the project environment. Here are some characteristics of projects with high complexity:

- Large, long-duration projects

- Projects with multiple dispersed, diverse project teams and their performance

- Urgent projects

- Fixed-date projects

- High degree of flexibility of cost, time and scope

- Unclear requirements

- Political sensitivity or strategic importance

- Cultural, organizational or commercial change

- New technology

Multicultural teams communication

Communication challenges

Taking all that into account, the communication challenges therefore are:

- People with different agendas

- Multi-cultural teams

- Working across time zones

- A fast-paced environment where change needs to be communicated appropriately

- And I’m sure you can think of others – leave a comment to tell us what else you have found contributes to a complex project environment.

So how do we tackle complexity?

In general terms, we can adopt specific strategies to deal with complex projects. Kathleen Hass has developed a project complexity model. She says that in order to manage complex projects effectively we should:

- Continually capture lessons learned

- Get the right people on the team and create a high performing team

- Document and communicate expectations

- “Keep in close touch through all available forms of electronic communication while maintaining an adequate amount of paper-based communications and formal processes.” (I would say that you don’t need to be paper-based – she was writing that in 2007 and things have moved on since then but the theory of keeping in close touch is sound.)

- Seek feedback often

- Build a framework for effective decision making and project oversight

- Carry out effective stakeholder engagement

- Promote the project as important for organization goals and strategies which includes promoting yourself but you need to be genuine, competent and credible.

These are a selection of things that she describes as complexity management techniques.

But surely these are things that also make non-complex projects more effective?

Social media in projects: evidence of keeping up

Many of you will know that I am a big advocate of using social media for project management. I speak and write regularly on the topic, and if these new tools aren’t an example of how project management can adopt new ways of communication to keep up with a changing environment, then I don’t know what is.

Twitter and the blogosphere have made every member of staff and every customer into a journalist. It’s easy for customers to comment on your business, and comments made online last a very, very long time. Businesses need to tap into what is being said about them online and ensure that the quality of the projects they are delivering measure up to customers’ expectations. If they don’t, you’ll hear about it pretty quickly.

Using social media in projects

This makes the communication plans for projects more complex. Should you include social media outreach efforts in your communications plan? How do you engage stakeholders who want to hear about project news while they are on the road, using their mobile devices?  These are the kind of things you can brainstorm with your team using iMindQ or another mind-mapping tool.

This may make our plans more complex, but it helps us keep up with shifting business models and new ways of working. And there really isn’t any reason for project managers not to be able to cope with the dynamics of a complex project environment. Many of our tools and techniques are designed to be scalable: you don’t need to do things differently; you just need to adapt the things you currently do to suit the communication needs of your project.