The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Managing Complex Projects

If you’ve been in technology for any amount of time, you understand that managing a large project can be tricky to say the least.

Strong project management skills are a must to create a schedule, assess dependencies, isolate lead times, organize installation crews, coordinate with other trades and keep all of this organized over the course of a long, ever-shifting, construction timeline. However, the secret to managing a large project goes well beyond Gantt charts and Smart Sheets.

Efficiently managing a large project also means managing the people delivering all the parts of these projects, each with their own motivations, attitudes, and communication styles.

It’s a lot like planning a journey, so I teamed up with Brandi Mursu, a program manager on my team at XTG, to break down her method of looking at a large project and navigating it to a successful completion.


Defining the Destination

People like to solve problems and that desire can cause us to rush into a solution mindset prematurely. Take the time to clearly define the “why” of the project and document it for the team. What is the outcome desired? What does success look like? Who will benefit most from a successful solution? Establishing a clear end-goal will guide the team to creating the best solutions for the project. Remember, “No one wants a drill, they want a hole in the wall.”

Reading the Room

When you first walk into the room, there’s a lot to take in. Our first instinct is to do a quick round of introductions, establish each person’s role, and start assigning tasks. This is ultimately necessary to kick off a project, but there are some other things to assess as well. Reading the room means assessing the attitudes, work styles and motivations of each team member. If Bob in marketing is excited about the project, but Jill in IT is a reluctant supporter, creating alignment with the team may be a more important first order of business than immediately assigning tasks. There is also something to be said for assessing who isn’t in the room that should be. Are there missing stakeholders or groups that need to be represented? If so, invite them to come along.

Charting the Course

Now that we know where we’re going, how do we get there? We’ve assembled the team, synchronized mindsets, and defined the goal. Now it’s time to explore how we will get there. The word “how” is important here. How will people communicate? How will challenges be addressed? How will we know if we’re headed off course? Establishing a common language and communication protocol is key to eliminating silos and facilitating the transfer of knowledge from one team member to the next. Everyone involved in the project is a valued contributor to the project and they are all responsible for being the keepers of the vision.

Reading the Road

The road ahead is long and winding. Being able to see around those bends to identify and prevent potential problems is key to any project. For many, this is like taking snapshots; looking down the road to check for obstacles and speed bumps, but this only provides limited perspective. To achieve greatness, we need think in terms of 3D imaging as opposed to snapshots — every different perspective contributes to creating a clearer and more complete picture. Do a pre-mortem with the team. Ask them to assume their part of the project failed and then to propose a few reasons why that may have happened. Then create both processes and contingency plans to mitigate the biggest risks. Farm for risk identification and farm for mitigation plans.

Enjoying the Journey

Large projects require a lot of time and a lot of energy. They can be exhausting, and challenging, and can even make a person question their career choices (us). For at least one person involved, this will be a first-time experience. Travelling a difficult road requires good company. Recognize the opportunity for learning, teaching and building togetherness and capitalize on it. Keep reconnecting to the project’s “why”. Celebrate milestones and small victories. Gamify mishaps. Reward ingenuity and praise resilience. Create a true team mindset by sharing credit and not spreading blame. Great teams exhibit these traits.

Saying Farewell

Completing a large project should feel like the end of an epic party. Everyone is likely exhausted, had a great time with minimal drama, and is leaving with new knowledge, connections and plenty of stories to share. Points of frustration are now comic relief, and that sworn enemy is once again a trusted friend. Sure, there was crying, hugging, and that one time where you needed someone to hold your hair back for you, but the next day, when they call you up, you’re ready to do it all over again.

End at the Beginning

Too many companies see the end of the project as the completion of the punch list and the delivery of the as-built drawings and user manuals. However, our systems don’t start delivering value until after their first use. The end of the integration is the beginning of use for the client, and a completed system that doesn’t end up delivering its original purpose, is, quite frankly, worthless. If the team does their job correctly, the project will end where it started, with the pre-defined outcome… now realized.