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7 keys to taming project complexity

How we embrace the unexpected

Large-scale projects can be intimidating, but our experience has helped us develop some simple tips for tackling complexity.

Large-scale projects like website (re)designs and in-depth research engagements are filled with excitement, anticipation, and a dash of uncertainty. Your project resources are approved, but how do you know the effort is going to pay off? More importantly, how will you even get to the end? Taking a wide-angle look at everything that needs to be done can be overwhelming. And honestly, even the best laid plans will require a detour or two.

We’ve been in your shoes: We tackle complexity regularly and have developed 7 tricks to tame the beast.

1. Invest in the discovery process

It may be tempting to breeze through this initial phase. After all, there’s a lot of work to do, so let’s get to it! Right?

Not necessarily.

Challenge your assumptions. Are you really addressing the root cause? Are you certain of who your users are? Does everyone else involved in the process agree? How do you know?

Invest in baseline studies, user surveys, stakeholder interviews, and persona workshops to get assumptions out on the table and focus your core team. Later, you can leverage this data to ensure you’re still addressing the root problem and everyone is onboard.

2. Commit to the plan

Dividing large projects into well-defined phases reduces the overall intimidation factor, making a complex project manageable. This roadmap will help direct (or redirect) you when complexity attempts to pull you off course.

Include specifics like expected deliverables, deadlines, dependencies, roles and responsibilities, and a clear outline of how each phase feeds into the next. Anticipate risks to (or within) your plan and outline what you could do to realign the project. That way, when things go off track, you’ll be prepared to manage risk without sacrificing your timeline or strategy.

  • Pro tip: Celebrate milestones along the way! This keeps teams motivated and marks the progression of a longer-term engagement.

3. Define a shared language

It’s incredible how different points of view produce different definitions for commonly used words. Clarify terms early and often.

If someone says, “This needs to work for everyone!” reply with: “Well, who is everyone?”

Or if you hear, “This needs to be really interactive!” ask what they mean by “interactive.”

Everyday terms can mean very different things for different people. When you walk away from a conversation with muddy terminology or generalized concepts you’ve added an avoidable layer of complexity.

4. Choose your collaboration tools

Simplify your project early by choosing one online repository for all communications and file sharing.

There’s no shortage of project management and idea-sharing tools: Basecamp, SharePoint, DropBox, Gather Content, Slack, and more! But which will work best for your project?

Use your project plan to determine what you need from your collaboration tool(s). Do you need a calendar that can dole out and track tasks? Or do you just need a place to drag and drop files for review?

Whichever you choose, make sure your entire team can access it and understands how to use it. Getting everyone off to a good start will empower the team and create efficiency.

5. Rely on team strengths

Building a multi-disciplined team based on specific project needs allows people to contribute within their areas of expertise. Team members become champions during certain phases rather than being forced to learn new skills mid-project.

Use your project plan to list skills you need to run a seamless project. Remember: You’ll weave these skillsets together at specific points in the project for the greatest impact. Subject-matter experts may be ideal for idea generation and fact checking, whereas a skilled user researcher is likely the best fit to design an unbiased study plan based off that subject-matter expert’s input.

  • Pro-tip: Look for individuals who are invested in the team-building project -- they’ll help you motivate others who may be struggling or who may not be as excited about taking on this additional work. The more help you have to keep everyone enthusiastic and close to the project plan, the better.

6. Be adaptable

The project threw you a curveball. That’s fine! Keep calm and remember: Panic and negativity are project-killers.

If you listed project risks and associated action steps in your project plan, you’re still in good shape. Even the most meticulous project plan can take a step (or 80) to the left.

Create space for team members and stakeholders to ask questions early and often. Build in resources and time around identified risk areas to course-correct your project. When the unexpected happens, take a deep breath, focus on the goal, find a new perspective, and redefine success metrics if needed.

  • Pro-tip: Altering a project plan is not a failure. But failing to alter a plan could, well, lead to project failure. Trying to maintain unrealistic timelines or expectations can kill team morale and jeopardize other aspects of the project. Involve your team and stakeholders as you adjust the plan, and manage their expectations so the evolved project plan doesn’t unnecessarily ruffle feathers.

7. Plan for the future

Oh, that exhilaration that comes from crossing the project finish line! You deserve to celebrate! So celebrate! Soak it in!

And then be prepared to answer, “What do we do now? What’s next?”

Complex projects may end but the work (likely) goes on. Plan for future program or organizational needs, actions, and updates stemming from the work you just completed.

During the project, note any elements that will need to be revisited. Have you purchased any images with limited rights that need to be renewed? Are there upcoming organizational changes that will need to be reflected within the content?

Start this list on Day 1 so you can edit, refine, and add context to various points before passing them along to teams and stakeholders. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember every hiccup at the end of a project.

  • Pro-tip: Consider holding a one-hour debrief at the end of the project. Discuss what went well and what could be improved. This prepares you to tackle complexity in your next project.
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