Agile or not? The right control for the right project. The difference between complex and complicated projects

Companies need to adapt the control after the type of project. That will support the project manager and the team to reach the target. To distinguish between complex and complicated projects puts agile (scrum) and common project control in a new context.

By our European industrial clients, it is noticeable how the width of development projects increases. Digitalisation, Internet of Things/Services and an increased share of software in industrial offerings drives it. In most” hardware” companies, common project management is used and agile project management is used to some extent also outside of software projects.

Experiences so far are mixed. Some feel that the agile approach is great while others experience lost control and lack of synchronisation. Industrial companies’ organisations are mostly not built for full-time cohesive teams but rather around specialist functions where persons are active in several projects in parallel. VMG have together with customers tested to adapt the mode of control based on if it is a complex or complicated project. Inspiration came from Cynefin*, a framework to understand characteristics of different environments. The result was that agile methods strengthened the complex projects where as the complicated projects benefitted from maintained control and synchronisation.

In the group Complex projects, we find for instance explorative studies of a new technology, solving complex quality problems or customer projects where the desired end result is unknown from the outset.
An analogy is a plate of spaghetti, if you pull the end of one spaghetti you do not know where the other end will start to move on the plate.

In the group complicated projects, we have engineer-to-order and development projects in known technology areas. Knowledgeable persons and experts can together understand what needs to be done. We have defined a couple of simple questions to be able to understand if a project is complex or complicated.

1.     Is it possible, in advance, to describe the desired output of the project? With a requirement specification, drawings, prototypes etc.

2.     Can experienced persons in advance describe the different steps in the project and how they relate to each other?  

3.     Is there a relatively small risk/chance that there will come new knowledge during the project that will give it a substantially different direction.

4.     Is there a need to deliver a specific output at a certain time. For instance to another development project.

If the answers are mostly ”yes” to the questions above it is likely a complicated project. If not it is probably a complex project. How does that affect the project control? For complex projects the process velocity and the way of working in the team are more important since the output is unknown. For complicated projects the content itself is the most important aspect.

Impact on planning: For complex projects, there is often only a time frame and a budget. The team must be put together and the process velocity and coordination points must be defined in order to enable focus, energy and coordination. Then the work backlog will be created and executed along the way. Complicated projects need a sufficient input to start (full-kit), a planning workshop, a schedule and a budget as means of control.

Impact on tool need: For complex projects, there is a need for support for the on-going planning and communication. Additionally, the team must be able to evaluate consequences and trade-offs in order to proactively discover when frames risk to be broken or targets not reached. Exactly this aspect is often a weakness in agile projects and needs to be strengthened.
For complicated projects, there is a need to follow how the project develops and to give a help to the team to manage resource- and time constraints in the best possible way.

VMG, Velocity Management Group is hired by leading industrial companies in order to help  improve performance and collaboration in R&D and Engineer-to-Order. VMG offer competence, methods and the Velocity System for portfolio-, project- and resource management.

Velocity Project Manager and Velocity Sprint Master are two tools which help project managers to run complicated and complex projects. Read more on VMG Homepage. Contact us for a discussion or demo.

* . Illustration: Snowded (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.