A ten-step process for leading a complex project

December 10, 2019 | By Patricia Hoopes | Back to blog

Illustration for a 10-step plan for project management

Anyone who has ever planned a big event, like a wedding, knows the complexity of managing time and resources to create the ideal event on deadline and on budget. There is a lot at stake, with many interdependent components and no option to extend the delivery date.

Business projects operate the same way, which is why employers recognize project management as an essential skill. It is a skill that also serves students as they pursue a business degree. Good project managers get noticed.

Project management is a current and strategic topic. Many firms push agile project management techniques hoping to increase project effectiveness and efficiency. While success stories of agile abound, some teams struggle with the concept. What can agile project management teach us?

Enno Siemsen, a professor in the Operations and Information Management Department at the Wisconsin School of Business, teaches a range of management topics in the full-time MBA program, including sales and operations planning, demand forecasting, global operations strategy, and project management. Here Siemsen outlines the project management overview he shares with incoming MBA students, which is also the basis for the project management class he teaches to MBA and MS in Business Analytics students.

“Projects are temporary and unique—not something an organization does repeatedly,” says Siemsen. “Every project requires learning and adaptation. Even a client may be uncertain about what it really wants. You start from scratch and need to manage that uncertainty. At the same time, without structure, it is hard to adhere to deadlines and budgets.” He adds, “It takes a skilled project leader to navigate from beginning to end, defining the process and guiding the result, on time and on budget.”

The three primary constraints in project management, says Siemsen, are time, resources, and scope. To succeed within those constraints, he promotes a ten-point project management approach.

1. Define the project.

Develop a charter as a tool to begin to define the project and coordinate stakeholders. This helps reduce uncertainty early on, breaks down complexity, and standardizes expectation. This early, collaborative document should be around five pages. It should clearly define the project purpose, scope, deliverables, and timetable, both to help the team deal with uncertainty and to align with client needs and expectations.

2. Reduce complexity.

Break the overall project into smaller, manageable tasks so team members understand what they have to do to complete the project. Continue breaking them down until each element is a workable, measurable task.

3. Manage stakeholders.

Get all stakeholders—which may include the project team, management, customers, government agencies, or other employees in the client organization—on the same page early regarding scope, resources, and time constraints and build in participation opportunities. Avoid surprises and be sure everyone is informed and has an opportunity to participate in the process.

4. Iterate.

The front end of your project is where your uncertainty is highest. Push feedback tasks into the schedule early on to reduce uncertainty and involve your clients as much as possible. The less you execute your project on assumptions, the better. However, once you have reduced customer and technological uncertainty, create stability by reducing your iterations and developing more long-term plans.

5. Create a schedule.

Task coordination is essential to establish a delivery date and avoid project delays. Identify the critical tasks that constrain how long the project will take. This can make or break your delivery date. It is important to note which tasks have precedence constraints—dependencies that require them to be done in sequence. Question precedence. And work on parallel independent or modular tasks to speed progress.

6. Employ reminders and deadlines.

Reminders focus attention, where deadlines reinforce duration. Both drive accountability. Deadlines relate to task durations built into the project schedule. Reminders create social connections that hold team members accountable to tasks and upcoming deadlines. Use reminders selectively so they don’t lose their effectiveness.

7. Build in buffers.

Delays are often inevitable. Building buffers into the schedule gives you flexibility to manage the unexpected. Time buffers give you breathing room to help meet key deadlines. Capacity buffers provide flexibility to add project members to late tasks to get the project back on time. Create global project buffers that become a shared resource for your team rather than buffers for individual tasks, since the latter are easily wasted.

8. Control tasks and resources.

Bottom-up information flow is important for effective project monitoring. People at the front line should have the ability to raise red flags, so create a climate where they feel safe to do so. Formal monitoring systems are important for long-term control, but simple mechanisms to identify roadblocks work well as an additional measure to keep your project on budget and on schedule.

9. Know your tasks and your team.

Knowledge-intensive work has intense coordination requirements. Adding more people to a late task can only delay it further. Whether extra people can speed up completion depends a lot on whether the team working on the task is already too big, and whether the task allows apportioning work without too much coordination between team members. At the same time, calling your team in for overtime work to get tasks back under control can quickly burn out your team members.

10. See the bigger picture.

In classic project management, every project is an island—considered independently from environment or context. Instead, take a portfolio perspective—the whole is more than the elements. Projects are dependent on each other for many reasons, such as internal politics or limited human or cash resources. Be aware of external constraints that may limit the ideal project outcome. A good portfolio balances many objectives, and it can make sense to put a project on hold in order to reallocate resources to more useful purposes.

Plan for inherent uncertainty

“When handed a project, don’t expect a precise pattern,” says Siemsen. “Keep in mind that project management is essentially change management, with all its inherent uncertainty and resistance. Following this plan will help you account for the unknowns and lead your project efficiently.”

Enno Siemsen is the associate dean of the Wisconsin MBA and Master’s Programs, leading the full-time, executive, and evening MBA programs as well as our new specialized master’s programs. He is responsible for overall program and academic strategy, identifying new opportunities, and managing the growth of existing programs. Siemsen is also a professor of operations and information management at the Wisconsin School of Business. He is a Fetzer fellow, the Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor, and the executive director of the Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management.