Book Review: Tools for Complex Projects

This book is  based on the latest research in the areas of project management, complexity theory and systems thinking. The authors aim  to provide a set of tools for understanding and managing the complex projects and programs.
The first chapter describes what is meant by a complex project. While all projects have interconnectedness, hierarchy, communication, control and emergence as their attributes, the complex projects have additional characteristics like phase transition, adaptiveness and sensitivity to initial conditions. All these attributes and characteristics are explained in this chapter with reference to the complexity theory.

In the next chapter the authors state that the complexity is a matter of perception and ambiguity. To enable effective communication they suggest categorizing the complex projects as follows:
1.    Structurally Complex  – ‘How does it all fit together so that we can manage it?’ or
‘How can we keep track of all the interdependencies?’
2.    Technically Complex – ‘How do we do or make it?’ or ‘How do we solve the technical or design problems?’
3.    Directionally Complex - ‘How do we share understanding?’ or ‘How do we agree about what we have to do?’
4.    Temporally Complex‘How can we be in a position to anticipate, survive or take advantage of the changes?’ or ‘How do we keep some control over the changes when they can occur at any time?’

The next four chapters (Chapters 3-6) explain each of the above mentioned complexity type. The explanation is as per the following  format:
•    Explanation in terms of Complexity Theory  -  Structure, Communication,  Control, Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, Degree of Order/Chaos
•    Project Management Challenges – Critical Project Phases, Executive Support, Project Manager Capabilities, Team Support, Financial Issues, Scheduling Issues, Risk Issues, Procurement Implications
•    Traps and Consequences – Traps to watch out for and the consequences of falling into these traps.

Chapter 7 provides a short overview of each of the 14 tools recommended by the authors, type of complex situations (Structural/ Technical/ Directional/ Temporal) where it can be used and when it can be used (whether throughout the project lifecycle or on ad hoc basis).  These tools are based on complexity theory, design theory, soft systems thinking, behavioral psychology and adult education theory.

Chapters 8-21 discuss the following tools in detail:
1.    Mapping the Complexity – a simple way to illustrate where the sources of complexity are likely to occur and how they change throughout the project life.
2.     System Anatomy – an approach developed for the telecommunications industry which involves simple graphic means of coordination between international centers.
3.    TOC (Target Outturn Cost) – an approach developed for construction projects based on collaborative working agreements.
4.     Program Tool – a concept which uses the program to help define differential strategies for managing projects within the program according to their type and level of complexity.
5.     Role Definition – a checklist for use when defining role capabilities for managing different types of complex projects.
6.    Jazz (Time-linked Semi-structures) – a way of thinking about the organizational structure for a complex project in order to balance creativity and output.
7.     Multimethodology in Series – an approach which grafts soft systems thinking to the front end of a project or project phase.
8.     Multimethodology in Parallel – an approach which embeds soft systems thinking into the project throughout the entire project life cycle.
9.     Virtual Gates – an approach which utilizes the idea of variable control gates to help manage project risk.
10.    Risk Interdependencies – a quick tool to help identify emergent risk patterns in small- to medium-sized projects.
11.     TCTC (Temporal Cost-Time Comparison) – an approach to preparing realistic ranges of estimates during uncertainty.
12.     Kokotovich Triad – a group of tools to assist in stimulating creative solution finding.
13.     Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ – a tool to help expand personal perspectives in a given situation.
14.     Discursive Universe – a tool to help with communication and managing difficult stakeholder relationships.

The discussion on the tool includes – a short description of the problem the tool addresses, how it relates to complexity theory, step-by-step guide to its application, cautionary notes, and examples of the use of the tool in practice.

It is  an useful book for the Project Management community. The complexity theory and its relation to projects are explained very well. I could easily see the connections that the Agile software development and project management methods have with the tools described in this book, though the book is not specific to software projects and Agile methods. However the extensive theoretical discussions may test the patience of a busy project manager. Also the discussions on the tools  serve only as pointers and most of them are not complete DIY (Do it Yourselves) recipes. However authors have provided plenty of references for further reading in each chapter. More examples /case studies on application of these tools would have enhanced the quality of the book (and probably enhanced the already high price as well!).

Nevertheless it is a book which should be in every corporate library and which every project manager should make time to read. It will widen their perspective and understanding of complex projects.

Book Details: Authors – Kaye Remington and Julien Pollack ; Hardcover  – 230 pages; Published – 2007; Publisher – Gower Publishing Ltd.
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