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Complex projects and leadership

Leading large-scale complex projects

Complex project leadership requires the ability to see projects through different lenses. We review three paradigms for leading complex projects.

A paradigm shift in how leaders understand / visualise their projects, that coincide with an increasing capacity to see the underlying complexity of issues, is needed in order to move the project forward.

These visions of projects are project-as-asset, project-as-system, and project-as-conversation. Complex project leadership requires the ability to see projects through each of these lenses as each lens highlights different things. Importantly, not everyone has the same inherent capacity to deal with the cognitive and emotional demands of complex projects and therefore the same capacity to successfully execute complex projects. However, this can be developed.

We identify a different action logic for each vision of projects and show how project professionals can progress from being technical contributors who operate from an Expert action logic and comprehend projects as assets; to project managers who act from an Achiever action logic and see projects as systems; towards leaders of complex projects with a Strategist action logic who can understand projects as conversations.

Visions of Projects

Not everyone has the same experience and capacity to deal with the cognitive and emotional demands that complex projects bring. We argue that this capacity for complexity is reflected in the way that someone speaks about and views projects. While there are many different metaphors for projects, three seem particularly apt to capture the level of complexity that becomes visible through them. Each subsequent level of complexity incorporates the previous one but adds a further layer (see Figure 1). Also, while it may be fairly straightforward to intellectually appreciate what each vision adds, it is much harder to genuinely enact the different action logics that embody that vision. Cultivating one’s ability and awareness of different project perspectives enables deliberate perspective taking, instead of merely acting out of habit. In the case of complex projects this can be the difference between success and failure, as ‘best practice’ based on previous projects may not suffice to deal with the unique characteristics of this project.

Figure 1. Paradigms for leading complex projects

Project-as-asset

Seeing a project predominantly as an asset means that we focus on the obvious characteristics of the ‘thing’ that the project is meant to deliver, and assumes that these are knowable and can be specified upfront. This might be a new ship, road, a piece of software, or even a process or policy implementation. In simple projects this perspective may suffice if project management simply consists of a series of non-reflexive routine steps to deliver the asset (or process). It would require little leadership to deliver the asset as envisaged. While this perspective can also be applied to complex projects, it would hide its complexity from view.

Using the example of a complex road project: From this perspective Sydney’s WestConnex is a 33 km road project in three stages that includes widening and extending the M4 and M5 motorways, and connecting these through a new bypass. It includes 33 km of road work, some of which will be tunnels, and adds 14km of new and upgraded pedestrian cycleways.

Project-as-system

Here we take a system perspective to projects to understand, first, the context that the asset will sit in, and second, everyone and everything that is part of the delivery system and contributes to the conceptualisation, design, construction and operationalisation of the asset. Currently this is commonly seen as the desirable perspective for project managers and a minimum requirement for those who manage complex projects. Over time this perspective of project-as-system has become increasingly sophisticated, for example by seeing a project as an open, complex adaptive system, where knowledge of the individual components does not provide a perfect understanding of the system as a whole. That is, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Building on the example used before: from a project-as-system perspective WestConnex is seen as the biggest transport project in Sydney since the Harbour Bridge and is constructed in its busiest traffic corridors. It is therefore part of the broader transport system of Sydney. Further, as a project it requires an enormous amount of planning to streamline the work of thousands of people from hundreds of different organisations in many different locations (i.e. the delivery system) while containing the disruption to existing traffic flows and local communities during construction. Each of these systems includes many interdependencies and feedback loops that cannot be controlled or predicted, and shape how the project emerges.

While we see the project-as-system as the current dominant vision, we argue that the Roundtable dialogues confirmed that there is merit in differentiating a third vision of projects that will help bring more clearly into focus how to gain a measure of independence from and exert more influence on the system. The importance of this will become clear when we discuss the different action logics that these different visions can cultivate.

Project-as-conversation:

Seeing a project primarily as an ongoing conversation means that we focus on the dialogue between people that occurs in relationship to the project. As a project leader this means pro- actively initiating and engaging in conversations that shape what meaning people give to the project. It also means being highly aware of what it means to be a human being in relation to the project. This is about consciously building collaborative and empathetic16 relationships that enable a better understanding of the interests and responses (both rational and emotional) that may be hidden behind negotiation positions. The aim of this is to work towards sufficient coherence or alignment on a particular challenging issue to enable moving the project forward. Within a broader project team this might manifest itself in a shared vision, aligned values and agreed practices. Beyond the project team this might be about creating a shared understanding of what the project will mean in terms of value for customers or others affected by the project, or about how to look at and deal with disruption to local communities.

Through this perspective the example of WestConnex may occur as something requiring some level of alignment of Coalition and Labour politicians at both the state and the federal level, and a sufficiently shared vision for greater Sydney by inhabitants of different parts of the city. Without this WestConnex may simply be seen by most people as the source of major disruption during construction and – if you live nearby - a risk to amenity, property value and air quality afterwards. Delivering the project requires ongoing dialogue and engagement with key people and stakeholders who contribute to the build or are affected by it to negotiate its success.

We see it as essential that a senior leader of complex projects can and does predominantly act from a perspective that can be described as project-as-conversation. To be clear, each complex project can and should be meaningfully understood as a conversation AND as a system AND as an asset.

Each perspective foregrounds something different and is therefore best suited to different tasks. A project-as-asset perspective foregrounds the asset itself, and lends itself to immediately deal with the technical characteristics of the asset itself. A project-as-system perspective can foreground both the asset in its context as well as the delivery system that is put together to build the asset. This focuses on, for example, the project team, subcontractors, suppliers, community, resources, and project specifications that constitute the system that must deliver the asset. It is therefore particularly suited to managing the delivery system in its broader system context. Lastly, a project-as-conversation perspective foregrounds the relational interactions between stakeholders and is best suited to orchestration of conversations: who needs to talk to whom, when, about what – without necessarily getting into the detail of all of those conversations or trying to control its outcomes. Such orchestration requires leadership practices that can purposefully change conversations, including having coaching conversations with team members or changing strained debate with critical stakeholders into generative dialogue. Critically, these conversations are less about the tangible aspects of the asset or delivery system, but more about the meaning stakeholders adhere to those and therefore require project leaders to operate on a relational and symbolic level.

The different perspectives need each other. We need experts who design the asset, others who project manage the delivery system, and different still, we need those who lead shaping the context and negotiating what sense stakeholders make of it all. At the executive level of major projects the role increasingly deals with the latter. However, without the other two perspectives, a project-as- conversation perspective may constitute no more than ‘just talk’.

While these different perspectives might be accepted on an intellectual level, this does not mean that everyone has developed the experience and mental capacity (both cognitively and emotionally) to step up and make each subsequent perspective central to their actions. We therefore argue that not every project manager will be able to lead complex projects successfully.

Cognitive and Emotional Capacity

The three perspectives on projects can be closely connected to what we know about stages of adult development18, which describe how people operating from a particular stage might enact their role as project leader differently. As its language is relatable to a project context, we will draw on the framework of ‘action logics’, which describes how people interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged. In the high stakes context of complex projects, such challenges can be a frequent occurrence. This can be seen to play out in the project context across three action logics we will discuss here: Expert, Achiever, and Strategist .... 

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This report is based on the Roundtable series in 2018 builds on previous themes through its focus on Project Leadership as the game changer in large scale complex projects. Combining the complementary expertise of International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM) and its Series Partner, the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, this report examines the important topic of leadership of large scale complex projects.

Roundtable workshop participants were asked to consider the leadership paradigm shifts that are needed to successfully deliver large scale complex projects. This report is the distillation of the contributions from events held across Australia, Canada and the UK. It draws on the experience of the participants and the expertise of ICCPM and the Series Partner, The John Grill Centre for Project Leadership, to present insights that individuals and organisations can use to improve their project performance.


Dr Maurizio Floris, Director of Leadership Programs, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership

Collin Smith, Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, International Centre for Complex Project Management

Professor Suresh Cuganesan, Chief Executive Officer, John Grill Centre for Project Leadership

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