Top Tips for Managing Complex Projects

We all know that managing projects – whether big or small – can be an undertaking in itself. But what if your project entails coordinating with multiple teams and stakeholders or has an aggressive timeline with numerous moving parts, all while on a strict budget? These factors don’t necessarily make the project difficult, but rather what we in the Project Management realm refer to as a complex project. 

What makes a Project Complex? 

Complexity refers to projects that include ambiguity or uncertainty and are surrounded by unpredictability. They can also have many interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated parts. Sounds complex, right? 

While some projects are complex from the onset, even seemingly well-planned and straightforward projects can lose their plot and morph into something they were not supposed to be in the initial stages.

But with the help of a few tips and tricks, you too can manage the beast of your next complex project, one bite at a time. 

Tip #1 – Identify Complexity Factors 

Before starting your complex project, it’s helpful first to identify those complexity factors and where they originate – whether they are external, internal, etc., and determine what makes it complex. This can include uncertainty around a project delivery process or the dependencies between the multiple moving pieces of your project. 

By front-loading the project development process, it’s possible to proactively identify and address critical issues that create project complexity rather than reactively. Maintaining program management agility and adaptability makes dealing with uncertainty possible, and having the right information available at this beginning phase is critical to making timely corrections in the right sequence. 

Once complexity factors are identified, you can prioritize and plan your project with all the dependencies you know are defined to the best of your ability. 

Tip #2 – Use a Powerful Project Management Tool to Manage and Track Your Project 

If your organization isn’t currently utilizing any tools to manage its projects, I’d highly recommend starting there and finding the right software or methodology that works best for you and your team. If feasible, I’d recommend a project management program, such as Atlassian’s Jira Software or

PM software allows team members to connect and seamlessly collaborate on tasks and projects. Project managers can use features like Kanban boards, Gantt charts, time tracking, task management, etc., which enables them to monitor individual performance as well as the project progress and make adjustments to the project timeline when required. 

These types of functionalities also help provide much-needed visibility throughout a project’s lifecycle, with the ability to connect tasks to requirements and milestones, collaborate with clients, and prioritize and time-track task progress. 

There are many different types of PM software at various price points, but selecting one that offers the right functionality tools will be an invaluable asset to any sized project.

Tip # 3 – Establish Clear, Shared Goals and Success Criteria

Once you’ve gathered your team and considered who needs to be involved in the project, it’s imperative that everyone has a cohesive understanding of the shared goals or the “why” of the project; this includes both your project team and stakeholders. 

When your team knows what drives your project, they will likely be more proactive in offering their ideas to the table. It also helps give them a clear picture of what they are working towards, why, how it will be accomplished, and how they will benefit from successful project completion and delivery.

And success criteria could mean more than just completing the requirements on time, within scope, and at cost. A project could accomplish all of those things and still be unsuccessful because the benefits were not delivered, the business case was not realized, and the key stakeholders were not satisfied. A benefits management and realization plan will help ensure that when completed, the stakeholders will be more than satisfied with the results. Remember, the stakeholders determine success, not those delivering the project 

Tip #4 – Implement a Project Timeline and Assess Progress Regularly 

After establishing your goals, you’ll want to break them down into smaller goals and determine your major objectives, tasks, and timelines, considering the complex factors and dependencies you identified earlier. I’d suggest spending a good amount of time on this component and implementing a project timeline with milestones to ensure the project stays on schedule. 

Project milestones can be used as checkpoints to help you easily identify your project’s stage and how far you are from completion. Examples of milestones can include project approval, requirements review, quality assurance testing, deployment, etc., just to name a few. Project milestones can not only help keep you and your team on track and focused on completing each task but also allows your team to assess progress on the way toward your goal. 

And with assessment, it’s essential to regularly assess project progress to ensure it is progressing per the set expectation. This routine process will help determine what’s working and what’s not while in the middle of a project. That way, if you encounter any hurdles, you can make changes in time so that the project stays on track. Taking remedial actions in the final stages or only when project deadlines are nearby can lead to late deliverables or, ultimately, project failure. 

Tip # 5 – Be Flexible and Embrace Adaptability 

Regardless of how careful you are with your project planning, it is still susceptible to highly unpredictable changes. Therefore, project managers should be flexible and embrace adaptability by maintaining an agile mindset.

An agile project manager is flexible when responding to changes and can easily adapt rather than blindly following a plan. It’s important that you are client-focused and can implement changes to the client’s requirements, or else you risk losing them. You can still be definite in your goals, but be flexible with your approach. 

And when making changes, it’s also essential to ensure all communication lines are open so important issues are discussed on time and no information goes unchecked by team members. 

The Takeaway on Complex Projects

Leading a successful complex project is challenging but certainly not unattainable. Because complex projects are unstable, you’ll want to take precautionary measures at the beginning while remaining on your toes throughout the project to tackle unprecedented changes. 

They key is to plan for changes, whether known or unknown, so that you can pivot and make adjustments to your project plan early on. And when changes are thrown your way, it’s imperative for project managers to be adaptable and their teams to stay nimble so that you can effectively and quickly respond to your client’s changes. 

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Assistant Project Manager

My role entails working with both internal teams and our clients on projects from conception to completion. This includes setting up project documentation, managing project resources, monitoring and documenting project progress as well as overseeing project scope and budget. I also help plug in with other efforts such as research and administrative tasks whenever needed.