Today’s world is a complex web of connections and interdependencies. This complexity has an impact on projects and management has to respond to these new challenges by developing new approaches to project management and team leadership.

The Art of Managing Complex Projects with the Right Team

© | alphaspirit

In this guide, we’ll look at 1) what complex projects are about and 2) why they are becoming increasingly common in today’s world. We’ll explore the 3) importance of different team management approaches and their impact on project management. In detail, we’ll discuss 4) the qualities of a great team and look at the differences between the conventional and the adaptive management approach.


First, it’s important to understand the definition of complex projects. This can be done by examining the terms separately.

A project is defined by the Business Dictionary as a “planned set of interrelated tasks to be executed over a fixed period and within certain cost and other limitations”. Projects are targeting defined objectives and they can include different deliverables.

But what makes a project complex? First, it is important to understand the distinction between “complex” and “difficult” or “complicated”.

A complex project isn’t necessarily a difficult project. Projects can be difficult due to reasons such as cost or performance, but this doesn’t automatically mean the project is complex.

Complexity in this context refers to projects that include ambiguity or uncertainty. The network of people and the organizations are not aligned, for example due to economical, political, cultural or technological reasons. The behavior of the stakeholders can also be ambiguous, causing further complexity.

As mentioned, there are a variety of factors causing project complexity, for example:

  • Technology – The technical content of a project can cause complexity. This could be down to the technology used, the software development in place and issues such as multiple integrated interfaces.
  • Cost – Money can also cause complexity. Projects might face issues such as not attracting enough capital in order to achieve the objectives or having problems of directing the funds to the right aspects of the project.
  • Schedule – Complexity can also come from the timing of the project. Especially projects that include technological complexity are often unpredictable, as timing different aspects of the project with achievable objectives can become an issue.
  • Politics– Projects can bring different stakeholders together, which can be a problem if there is politics involved. Different political interests can increase the complexity, as the project has to manage different requirements and expectations.
  • Legal – Legal issues surrounding a project can also increase complexity. Legal complexity can sometimes be related to politics as well.
  • Social – The social context of the project can also increase complexity. This can be due to the group members coming from different social backgrounds, or even from the project working within a specific social context.

Complex projects are essentially surrounded with unpredictability, often due to the above reasons. The team’s different stakeholders can’t make predictions easily because the processes are complicated, uncertain and heavily time-constrained. The final outcome will be hard to understand because the project’s causes and outcomes don’t relate or the links are ambiguous.

Overall, the complexity of a project often increases as the number of stakeholders within the project goes up.

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Project complexity is on the rise. This is mainly due to the way business and research is currently conducted. Let’s analyze the change through three different developments: the differences in team structures, the improvement in technology, and business connectedness.

The way teams are structured has changed over the past years. Before, management used to rely more heavily on hierarchical structures, but today’s teams are much more fluid and flexible. Furthermore, the technological advances have resulted in companies and organizations being less location-bound. You can be in charge of the teams that have members from Mumbai to Tokyo. This naturally adds more complexity to managing a team. Finally, there have been changes to contractual agreements. Companies can hire freelancers or have sponsors for specific projects, which is different to the usual employer-employee model.

In addition, modern projects tend to have increased the complexity because of technological advances. Not only are there more tools available for conducting and managing projects, but technology itself is also becoming more complex to manage. Projects that are aiming for specific objectives are often linked to other projects, as interconnectedness is increasing. Management of technology is also difficult because the amount of data is rapidly growing. Technologies have allowed the collection of data on large-scale, but the ways to use the data are becoming increasingly complex.

Finally, businesses are not stand-alone organizations anymore. Most businesses need to work in co-operation with others and compete in increasingly saturated markets.

Learn about what can go wrong in complex projects.

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If you want to ensure success with a complex project, you need to build a team including the right people. Managing complexity becomes easier the better the team is. But how do you build a great team?

To succeed with this objective, you need to understand what successful teams are built on. The signs of a successful team are:

Adaptive team leadership. An exceptional team needs to have an exceptional leader. In a complex project, the management must not be focused on leading in a hierarchical structure, but rather keep hierarchies as flat as possible, in order to be more adaptive.

If every decision has to go through several hierarchical levels, the decision-making process will take a long time.

Optimal team structure. Teams can be built in different ways and the structure can have a huge impact on the success of the project. Jim Highsmith and Jim Collins are among the experts who have studied optimal team structures. According to their findings, contemporary team structures can be:

  • A core team structure – reflects a hierarchical and network structure. There are several teams working within a specific project, taking on different types of configurations.
  • Self-organization structures – if the number of teams within a project goes up, the organizational structure starts looking more like a self-organization extension. This increases complexity and requires appropriate management of inter-team dependencies.
  • A culture of empowerment and discipline structures – this structure requires high accountability, collaborative engagement and a proper balance between project goals and team goals.

The right team composition. A successful team needs to have the right people in place. Conventional wisdom is to build teams with the project’s strategy in mind, but you might benefit from a different approach.

Rather than finding people to support your approach, find people who are “right” in their own right and then collaborate to set the tone for the project.

A disciplined culture. Good teams are built around a disciplined work effort. You don’t want to burden a team with standards or specific practices, but there must be an overall culture of discipline. You want to enforce standard collaboration procedures, but ensure they are based on realistic assumptions.

Effective collaboration. Successful teams are also good at organizing collaboration in an efficient manner. The project’s objectives shouldn’t be driven from the top down, but be the result of a collaborative effort. Constant feedback across the team can ensure the team’s focus isn’t shifted and that every member of the team is working to improve the performance. Make sure you aren’t focused solely on achieving certain project-cantered objectives, but that collaborative deadlines are also established and met. Sharing and discussing ideas is great, but at one point you need a decision. Getting there is your job as a project leader.

Communication and cooperation. Collaboration shouldn’t be completely moved away from traditional face-to-face meetings. Although teams might be scattered, there should be opportunities where collaboration happens outside of e-mails and text messages. However, it’s wise to support the traditional face-to-face model with modern technologies that allow instant sharing. For example, professional service automation (PSA) and enterprise project management (EPM) tools and task management software apps can be great tools for a team to make the most of communication and cooperation.

Great teams aren’t the result of happy accidents. In order to achieve a team that shares the above qualities, you need to plan carefully and instill continuous and disciplined effort to meet the requirements.

Creating a good and successful team is never an easy task to achieve, but it can be especially difficult when managing complex projects. Therefore, you need to be mindful of the different management approaches that can work.

Ensure your team focuses on two key areas during the project. First, you must prioritize the tasks. Not every aspect of the project is equally important to a successful completion and finding the key priorities should be the first goal of the team. Second, you need to simplify the road towards these priorities. Try to outstrip as many of the tools and tasks as you can, in order to achieve the objectives.

In order to understand the importance of simplifying a complex project, watch the below TedTalk by Yves Morieux:


As well as having the best team for complex projects, you’ll also need to find the right management approach to organize the team’s work using work management software tools.

In complex projects, you’ll be dealing with a diverse group of people, who have to deal with the different complexities the project might throw at them.

In order to get the best out of the team and receive the best results with complex projects, you should use a combination of two different management approaches: the conventional and the adaptive approach.

The conventional approach

Project management’s traditional approach tends to focus on achieving tasks in a linear fashion. The idea is to have a set of well-defined goals and achieve these in the right order to reach the results. It’s all logical and linear.

A conventional management style puts emphasis on a set of procedures the team must follow. It focuses on finding the right tools for solving the problems at hands. Since it’s focused on a linear approach of solving problems, it emphasizes meetings, especially face-to-face, in order to organize processes.

Under the conventional management model, a team would operate under the following procedural approach:

  • The team would meet up to plan the project
  • The team would plan the objectives and the timeline for achieving them
  • Decisions would be made with the objectives in mind as a group
  • The project would be decomposed into logical pieces and each person assigned the best tasks
  • The individual pieces and resolutions would eventually be integrated into a final solution

A conventional approach should also focus on creating a strong culture within the team to collaborate and communicate. Whilst people should be focused on solving the individual tasks they were set out to solve, there should be constant communication and discussion to ensure everyone follows the procedures.

Many complex projects are managed using Gantt Charts. Learn how to do that by watching this video.

The strength of the conventional approach is its focus on finding priorities. Prioritizing objectives is crucial for project success, especially when these objectives can be muddled and difficult to understand in complex projects. Most projects have a critical path to success.

This means that in order to reach the results, the team must accomplish tasks A, B, C, and D. Furthermore, these tasks often have to be completed in a specific order. For example, it might be that in order to fully finish task B, tasks A and D must be completed.

The conventional management approach is useful in analyzing the critical path.

But the conventional approach’s emphasis on planning and control doesn’t always sit well with complex projects. This is because complexity can make it harder to identify the tasks in a linear line and slight variations can easily remove the ability to make logical decisions.

Therefore, a more adaptive approach is needed.

The adaptive approach

Because of the above limitations of the conventional management approach in terms of complex projects, team leadership should also use a more adaptive approach. The adaptive approach has been the direct result of the development of the complexity theory.

The adaptive approach takes a more agile and fluid view of projects. It recognizes that projects aren’t always predictable and teams must be able to adapt on the go. The adaptive approach directly addresses the unpredictability of complex projects.

An adaptive approach often uses innovative and experimental tools and it takes advantage of different technologies.

For example, you should take advantage of different virtual tools that improve cooperation and collaboration within the team.

Whilst an adaptive and agile management style doesn’t place as much importance on face-to-face meetings, you shouldn’t overlook them when making important decisions in terms of the project’s future.

The key of this approach is to allow agility within the team. You want to divide the group into smaller teams that leverage the experience within the group. Decision-making should be done on a more fluid level, without always requiring the involvement of all hierarchical levels.

Whilst a conventional approach is good at analyzing the critical path and to prioritize tasks, the adaptive approach helps teams in situations when unpredictability happens.

For example, it might be that the results of the task D are not well known. Whilst you might need to accomplish tasks A and D in order to finish task B, you don’t know for sure whether this is possible within the timeline. Task D might end up with different results, which changes how task B will behave.

Although you should instill a certain level of procedural oversight over the complex project, you need an adaptive approach to procedures. Complex projects might be difficult to manage if there’s not enough flexibility in terms of leadership and implementation.

This means accountability should be shared, but oversight shouldn’t be too strict.


The key to managing complex projects is to select the right team. It is important to understand the complexities of the project and build a team with the right talent to overcome these issues. Moreover, the organizational structure of the team will play an important role in deciding the success of the project.

Furthermore, you should focus on implementing a balance of a conventional and an adaptive management approach.

The strength of the conventional approach in creating priorities within the group will help achieve the objectives quicker and more effectively. But this linear model isn’t always enough to respond to the unpredictable aspects of complex projects. Therefore, you want the team’s approach be agile and fluid enough to adapt to situations that were unexpected. A combination of these tactics can help yield the best results.

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