In this installment of the short series looking at the different complexity influences on and from project virtual teams. Here I am considering method and scope complexity and uncertainty, how these factors impact complex projects and how project virtual teams both contribute to the overall complexity and compound the challenges.
Method and scope uncertainty complexity occurs around issues such as the maturity of the scope of the project, the proportion of new or highly novel technology to both the project and the team, the quality and maturity of the estimate and the accuracy and reliability of the assumptions that went into the formation of the estimate.
- Scope maturity – theoretically every project will have a clear scope before sanction, it should have gone through a series of developmental phases prior to full sanction where the owners systematically work to define the required scope, including costs, materials, time frame and how overall success is defined. However, reality is somewhat different. Some projects will be initiated with little to no definition, either to meet a critical need, plug a gap, address a crisis or simply because the owners were so excited to get started they jumped straight in without really taking the time to plan. Even in most of these situations there should be some level of definition around the scope, though budget and time frame are likely less well framed. However well defined the scope may be, conveying the definition across any project team beyond whatever may be written can be challenging, personnel will interpret definitions based on their previous experiences and through their own lenses, leading to confusion and misunderstanding. This confusion becomes substantially compounded in a project virtual team environment, where not only are personnel contending with interpreting the scope definition, they are frequently doing so remotely without access to anyone who was part of the development of the scope to help with any required clarification. It is important to ensure all members of the team, regardless of location, have a full and clear understanding of the required scope as it impacts their tasks.
- Proportion of new technology – Many years ago now a manager of mine advised me to avoid having more than one new major piece of technology on a project. It has been advice that has stuck with me for many years and one which I have seen cause several projects to encounter problems. Several small and unobtrusive new pieces of technology are fine but if more than a certain percentage of the effort on a project is associated with a single new piece of technology it is very easy for projects to slide from simply complicated to complex. Trying to integrate a number of pieces of new technology into a major project while using a virtual team to undertake much of the integration work, and here I mean that the integration is split between a number of locations rather than all of it in one office, can lead to major issues as team members separated by time and distance battle both their displacement and the challenges of the new technology. Examples of this can be seen in things like the problems faced by organisations like Airbus in the development of new aircraft across multiple European centers.When planning for your project identify the major new technology and even the less major but high risk new technology and ensure it forms a manageable portion of the overall project.
- Maturity of estimate – There has been a lot written on the need to have a mature and well developed estimate before committing to the full execution of a project. Some of the best work has been by Ed Merrow of IPA in his book “Industrial Megaprojects” where he discusses what is known as the Front End Loading (FEL) approach to the development of projects, where substantial efforts are expended in a very structured manner to develop as mature an estimate as possible. This is achieved through a highly developed process where the project is defined in increasing levels of detail, from a scope, cost, quality and schedule perspective, then at predefined quality levels the estimate materials are reviewed by an independent group of either internal or external personnel to ensure it meets all of the required criteria. This approach removes as much of the uncertainty as possible from the estimate prior to the organisation making the decision whether to proceed with the project or not. – work as hard as possible for as long as practical to reach the highest level or definition of the project before committing to undertake the project.
- Reliability of assumptions – It can be very easy to build a project based on assumptions, assumptions on material or labour costs based on past trends, assumptions on availability of input stock at the appropriate quality, assumptions of strength of market for the product over the likely lifetime of the facility being developed and assumptions on the availability of suitable skilled personnel to undertake the project and to operate the product. However, without verification these assumptions remain just that, assumptions, not much more than slightly informed best guesses. As with the maturity of estimate discussed above, it is imperative during the development of a project that all assumptions are clearly thought through and, where necessary, research is undertaken to firm up the assumptions into either hard facts or at least fully researched understandings. Many of these assumptions should also feature heavily in any risk analysis undertaken as part of the project planning, since an assumption around materials costs is also a risk to the project. -Identify and test any assumptions being used in the development of your project and either firm up the information behind them or include them in the project risk register for ongoing monitoring and factoring into the project costs.
How does a virtual team impact method and scope complexity
Method and scope complexity are all encompassing facets of project environments. As such, the inclusion of a virtual team as part of the project organisational structure will impact the project. Communicating scope maturity across a virtual team is more challenging than doing it in a co-located team, the distance and accompanying displacement means that many in a virtual team environment will only hear of evolving scope through formal communications while those co-located with the personnel developing the scope will have day to day visibility of the changes. Similarly, any new technology may not be as visible across the virtual team as it is to those charged with integrating it, whether they are from the home office or one of the satellite offices comprising the team. Ensuring a mature estimate can also be challenging if the personnel developing the estimate are unfamiliar with the cost and schedule impacts inherent with a virtual team, both positive and negative, and assumptions in a virtual team environment are always a dangerous thing to take too seriously as things may be changing without those making the assumptions even being aware in an environment where many personnel are working remote from others.
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