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Managing Complexity with Agility | Project Research Institute

Managing Complexity with Agility

In a recent blog post Terry Williams challenged traditional project management's ability to deal with complex projects with high levels of uncertainty. To cope effectively with complexity, project managers must "be able to draw from a wide range of tools and ways of thinking to develop their own methods, their own patterns of practice, freely, according to the exigencies of the particular project" (Remington & Pollack, 2008). In other words, to manage complexity effectively, project managers need to be agile.

Jurgen Appelo's New Model of Simplicity distinguishes between the terms complex and complicated based on two dimensions of a system: structure and behavior. The structure dimension is our ability to understand the system and ranges from simple to complicated. The behavior dimension is our ability to predict the behavour of the system and ranges from ordered, through complex, to chaotic. A complicated system, according to Jurgen, is hard to understand. In contrast a complex or chaotic system is unpredictable with many surprises. It is the unpredictable nature of complex projects - the way the elements of the project combine to produce "results that are often not obvious and sometimes quite counter-intuitive" that led Terry Williams to challenge traditional project managers.

Lean-Agile doesn't offer much on the structural dimension of the New Model of Simplicity but has elements that do address the behavior dimension. Although it is not possible to predict the unpredictable it is possible to expect the unpredictable (Michael Bolton) and that takes agility. Alberts (2011), writing on the Agility Advantage for the US Department of Defence, makes a strong case that the more complex the situation the more agility required to deal with it. Or, as Jurgen Appelo puts it, It Takes Complexity to Handle Complexity. From Jurgen's perspective software teams using Lean-Agile are trying to "match the ever-changing complexity of the environment with social complexity (people & interactions) and continuous improvement (embracing change).".

Alberts (2011) sees agility as a composite variable with six components: responsiveness, versatility, flexibility, resilience, innovativeness, and adaptability. At least two of these components are needed for an team to demonstrate agility in a particular situation. As circumstances change different combinations of components are needed.

Unfortunately Alberts's components of agility, although reasonable, only helps us recognise agility when we see it. The categorization does not help a team become agile. For that we need specific principles and practices. In my PRI post on A Lean-Agile Perspective on Project Governance I outlined five aspects of Lean-Agile that can help projects retain alignment with business objectives even as those objectives change. All of these aspects are applicable in the context of complex projects and I'll briefly revisit two to illustrate the point.

Assigning somebody to steer - a product owner for a software project - is an example of delegating to the lowest level possible (Jim Highsmith). In this case the delegated authority is related to the product. Ideally the project will also have delegated authority on project matters (e.g. where money is spent) and technical matters (e.g. what technology to use) as well. With delegated decision making authority the project team is more able to respond quickly as new information becomes available. If the team has to escalate on these kind of matters then the project is likely to stall while the appropriate governance bodies are convened to make the decision. To put it another way, if companies want project managers to "demonstrate more autonomy and entrepreneurship" (T Mengel) they have to delegate the appropriate level of authority to those managers.

The idea of planning to learn also has a profound impact on how projects are run. If the scope is expected to change then there is little point investing a lot of energy in detailed planning up front (Agile Project Planning). The Agile Manifesto is clear that Agilists should value "Responding to change over following a plan". Agile plans exist but they, like the change management process, are light weight. Plans are also developed to the next planning horizon, in other words, a detailed plan is only produced for the very near future. By making the plans light weight, and delaying planning effort until the last moment, the team remains responsive to change.

Traditional project management approaches are struggling to deal with complex projects. In contrast agility is now being seen as a way, perhaps the way, to address complexity. The simple injunction to be agile does not help much but an awareness of Lean-Agile, specifically Agile Project Management, will offer practitioners more choices when the unexpected happens.

PRI Note: If you are interested in complexity then our recent book club on Complexity in Projects will be a good read too.

References and Further Reading

Agile Manifesto

Alberts, D. S. (2011). The Agility Advantage: A Survival Guide for Complex Enterprises and Endeavors. Command and Control Research Program (CCRP).

Appelo, J. (2010). Simplicity: A New Model. Noop.NL.

Appelo, J. (2011). It Takes Complexity to Handle Complexity. Noop.NL.

Bolton, M. (2010). Blog: Project Estimation and Black Swans (Part 4). Develop Sense.

Highsmith, J. (2007). . Cutter Consortium.

Mengel, T. (2011). Leadership in Project Environments: New frontiers or old wine in new wineskins?. PRI.

Remington, K. & Pollack, J. (2008). ChAPTER 1: What is a Complex Project?. Tools for Complex Projects, p. 1-13. Gower.

Thomas, S. (2008). Agile Project Management. It's a Delivery Thing.

Thomas, S. (2008). Agile Project Planning. It's a Delivery Thing.

Thomas, S. (2012). A Lean-Agile Perspective on Project Governance. PMI.

Williams, T. (2011). What's the reach of BoKs in understanding what management a project needs?. PMI.

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