In the area of complex projects, which are generally considered to have some or all of the characteristics of structural complexity, social complexity or uncertainty complexity. Each of these three characteristics have a different impact and drive the complexity in a different way. The more of any of these characteristics or the more pronounced any of them the project has, the more complex it can be considered to be.
In this article, which is part of a short series on the subject, I will consider structural complexity and how virtual teams are an integral part of that area.
Structural complexity is where the project itself or the deliverable of the project has large numbers of elements, where it has large numbers of interconnections between the elements themselves within the project, large numbers of inter-related contracts or other forms of structural elements inside the project which have complex inter-relationships.
- Number of elements – The number of elements refers to the overall physical complexity of the project deliverable, so, for example, if the project is to design and deliver a new aircraft, there will be a huge number of different, highly interconnected elements in the physical deliverable (the aircraft) and a similar number of interconnected elements involved in its design and construction. On the other hand, if the project is to design and build a road the physical deliverable is a long stretch of tarmac which, while potentially complicated, does not include the complexity of interconnected elements.
- Project size – In many instances the physical size of the project may increase the structural complexity of the project. Project size can be measured in its capital cost, the physical or virtual size of the project deliverable, or one of several other dimensions. Each industry or sector will have its own metrics for such measures which makes it very hard to define in a post such as this. However, as examples, a large IT project may have a relatively modest capital budget of several millions of dollars but be considered large in its field while an infrastructure project such as a land subdivision may have a capital value of tens to hundreds of missions of dollars but be considered only complicated.
- Number of contracts – The greater the number of financial and other contracts involved in any project the greater its structural complexity. Each contract adds multiple human, physical and financial interconnections to the project and with each of those interactions comes increased complexity. So, to draw on the examples used earlier, an IT project may only have a small number of contracts covering hardware, network, software etc, while a new build aircraft will have hundreds to potentially thousands of individual contracts involved in its design and delivery
Similarly, structural complexity occurs where the project is run by or for a joint venture, partnership or alliance or where the process of the deliverable its self has a large number of interconnected variables.
- Joint ventures and alliances – Joint ventures and alliance models seem to come and go as fashions for project delivery change. Some industries such as civil infrastructure have a long and generally successful track record of delivering joint venture projects while other sectors have either tried it and decided it didn’t work for them or have yet to try. Joint ventures and alliances are where multiple enterprises join together in a commercial arrangement to deliver a project, they share the risk, share the exposure and hopefully share in the success. If organisations have not previously collaborated in one of these models there are a number of real risks to the outcomes of the project created by their need to learn things as they go, while those with a track record of collaboration tend to be more successful due to their experience and established procedures.
- Interconnected variables – Interconnected variables in the context of structural complexity occur where a project has a high degree of internal interdependence. So, to go back to the aircraft example from above, such a project would be come increasingly complex if, for example, the wings were made in one location, the fuselage in another, the landing gear in a third, wiring looms a fourth, avionics systems in a fifth etc. In such an example the finished aircraft can not be assembled until all of the parts are in the assembly area at the right times, if one component is late or does not fit the rest must stop. With each additional source comes the interconnection issues of the design phase, procurement, quality management etc. all of which contribute to the structural complexity of the project.
Structural complexity and project virtual teams
Where the project virtual team challenges arise in association with structural complexity is anywhere there are team members working in a distributed, remote fashion. This could include those in different factories and design centers contributing to the overall project through an alliance structure, the design personnel and contracts personnel in one office interacting with those in another. Essentially, as the project structure becomes increasingly complex so do the degrees of complexity interconnecting the team members.