Delivering projects on time, on budget and to a high standard is a challenge many engineers face. create spoke with a complex project management expert to get some advice.
Kieran Duck, author of The Complex Project Toolkit, has 25 years of experience transforming organisations and as an advisor and coach to senior leaders running complex projects. He said the nature of project management is evolving — along with the projects themselves.
“The nature of complexity is changing. Complexity used to come from trying to coordinate and control large amounts of resources to build large structures and objects,” he said.
“Complexity then shifted to more technical problems [such as] building and delivering new computer systems built on concepts rather than physical things. Now with easy access to worldwide capability, the limits are no longer our understanding of the technical nature of the problem.”
Duck, a computer engineer-turned-consultant, said the key problem he sees today is that projects often are driven by a range of different opinions.
“It could be small groups having a disproportionate impact on the project timeline, or diverging management views on the best approach to innovation,” he said.
Complexity demands ways of thinking and skills that are not traditionally associated with managing projects.
“It is about being flexible and adaptive rather than focusing on control and predictability. It is about finding the balance between holding space to explore options and finding a way to get things done even when there is no clarity,” he said.
“It is a willingness to sense and respond to what is occurring around you, to rethink the approach when the current path isn’t working. It is a new way of working that both improves the likelihood of success for the project but also lifts the experience of everyone involved by not trying to force certainty on a situation where there is none.”
Reflecting on challenges
Looking back at his career, Duck said a multi-billion-dollar project to design and build new trains a decade ago stands out.
“The program was running behind schedule. But in a short space of time, we were able to identify both the nature of the bottlenecks and what was driving the delay — it was the sign-off process,” he said.
“The biggest frustration for the train builder was the number of iterations required to get sign-off. The biggest frustration for the customer was the number of iterations required to get sign-off. With this insight we completely redesigned the interactions on the project to be more collaborative and generative.”
Duck said that building trust was one of the biggest challenges.
“As an outsider coming into the project, I spent the first two months delivering on my word, showing that I was there for the result and that people could trust me to deliver,” he said.
“Some people on the project even set me tasks that, in hindsight, were designed to test me to see if I was ready for the rigours of the situation.”
Project management advice for engineers
Duck has three key pieces for advice for engineers embarking on a complex project, or considering a career in project management.
“Firstly, be curious: complexity is emergent and always changing,” he said.
“You need to have a curiosity to be looking for something different, to be asking why something is the way it is. Fortunately, this focus on understanding and learning tends to come naturally to engineers.”
His second recommendation is to “give up knowing” and un-learn that as an engineer, your source of value is knowing the right answer.
“As you get into complexity, where opinions can have as much impact as data, you will come to realise that ‘right-wrong’ is an ineffective paradigm and that ‘better-worse’ is a better framing,’ he said.
“For engineers to exist in this environment, first you must give up trying to know the answer and look for the answers in others. It is more important to be able to ask good questions and listen intently for what the answer reveals both about that person and yourself.”
Finally, he believes in building a strong team around you, because when it comes to complex projects, no one person can see the whole system.
“Look for the brilliance in others and give the best people a reason to hang around with you. Give them a sense of purpose, or at least bring a great sense of humour,” he said.
Kieran Duck’s top tips:
- Be curious and ready to ask why something is the way it is
- Give up trying to know all the answers and realise that ‘better-worse’ is a more effective paradigm than ‘right-wrong’
- Build a strong team around you