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BLOG: Wicked and Messy? Or Simply Complex?

Joanne Flinn | Jan. 31, 2013
All projects are not created equal

Last year I was called in to mentor a rather large project (ok, it is huge) with their project management. It was running years late, mega-millions over budget - and could bring down the company when implemented. They were 'project managing'.  It dawned on me that this project needed some new terms... the size, issues and complexity of this project was out of the norm. There they were, lost in the land of normal project management.

All projects are not created equal. Yet standard project management methodologies are applied on the assumption that things are logical, linear, and predictable. Reality check: we live in a world in which we don't know where we'll be in two years. In such a world, projects are rarely simple.

Project management began with buildings and architecture. Back then, projects had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was possible to be logical, since buildings are, in essence, rational.

Rarely simple or rational

In contrast, corporate projects are rarely simple or rational, (just think of the politics) yet the standard methodologies of project management still assume that projects are rational. Physical sciences differentiate between complex and simple systems.

Messy and wicked, these are terms from human sciences to also consider if the problem to be solved challenges the beliefs or values of anyone involved. Interestingly, many big technology projects do - when they hit the business. After all, a project is meant to change how we do things - and that often involves changing our beliefs.

Simple, complex, messy, wicked - each project has its own dimensions and each requires different things of project and change management.

Kathleen Hass as written a great book 'Managing Complex Projects'  which delves into this deeply.

Here is a short set of questions I use to help Project Sponsor classify their project:

Does the project involve:

- Clearly defined set of steps, less than 20? It is simple.

- Multiple modules that need to interact? It is complex.

- Multiple departments or groups of people? It is messy

- Multiple values that may conflict? It is  wicked

Many big projects are complex, messy and wicked - and yet they are treated as simple. They require different methodologies, and have different risk profiles and levels of investment.

All projects are not created equal (with appreciation to George Orwell)

Joanne Flinn is the author of "The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects" (Wiley 2010).


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