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When it comes to managing complex projects, there is so much to consider. Small issues might not seem like a big deal at first, but the more complex the project becomes, the more a small misstep can have a ripple effect.

While complex projects are often very serious, managing them can be like playing a video game. In this game, you’ll encounter different levels, each featuring a specific "villain" representing a common project management challenge.

What is a Complex Project?

A complex project is a type of project that has a high degree of difficulty, complexity, uncertainty, and risk due to various factors. These might include a large team, a big budget, many stakeholders with conflicting priorities, or new or emerging technology.

This is the opposite of a simple project. In a simple project, you have a small team, a straightforward objective, and possibly a short duration. For example, a small project might be to create a set of digital ad banners, while a complex project might be to create an entire website from scratch.

The purpose of project management software is to help wrangle complex projects and can be an essential tool in this process.

Planning Your Game—Setting Objectives and Gathering Resources

When initiating a complex project, the process isn’t that different from getting ready to play a new video game. 

First, you need to install the game. In your project, you might start by gathering your project charter or statement of work signed by the client or other stakeholders. 

Next, you can choose or customize your character. Pick your name, appearance, any accessories, and the skills and abilities they’ll have as you play. This is similar to holding a project kickoff meeting in which you clarify everyone's roles. You might even use a RACI chart to display this for everyone on the team. 

Then, you want to confirm your settings. Make sure the audio and visual settings for your game are just the way you like them. Get comfortable in your chair or on your couch. For a real-life complex project, this might mean getting your software ready, managing notifications, and setting up the SOPs along with the communication plan, project plan, and risk register. 

If your game has one, you might play through the tutorial to ensure you understand all the rules. In a complex project, this might look more like an internal kickoff meeting or a small test assignment to ensure everyone is on the same page about how you’ll work together. 

Finally, you can play the game or successfully run your project! 

Spending all the time necessary for preparation ensures that you and your team are on the same page, have addressed all questions, and have everything required for success—whether it's for a project or a fun gaming session!

Navigating The Villains of Complex Projects (And How to Beat Them)

Level 1: Stakeholder Alignment - The Meeting Gremlins

In this graphic, three meeting gremlins chase our video game character, asking him for "just a quick chat".
While encountering one meeting gremlin is difficult enough, they also have a tendency to swarm—overwhelming your team and calendar!

Villain: The Meeting Gremlins

In the first level of our game, we encounter a mortal enemy: the meeting gremlin. This character represents the stakeholder who consistently demands status updates, usually in the form of meetings. A meeting gremlin might also demand an immediate call, Zoom meeting, or Slack Huddle, putting you or your teammates on the spot and making you scramble to prepare.

In a really complex project with a lot of small details and ground to cover, this villain might also try a signature move called ‘the swoop and poop’ where they come into a scheduled meeting, derail the entire focus, and then leave the meeting with everyone staring after them.

In some cases, a meeting gremlin might be a senior stakeholder who is further removed from the project's day-to-day operations. They may be the person who has final approval or who controls the budget. So, while they need regular updates, the way they seek information can be exhausting for you as a project manager and, by extension, for your team members.

The Challenge

In this level of our game, there is often more than one meeting gremlin present. These gremlins may differ in their priorities, communication styles, and even their specific needs for the type of update they’re seeking.

For example, the CIO of your client’s company might ask for meetings and seek information on infrastructure and data security. At the same time, the CMO might want a weekly meeting to talk about marketing KPIs and how your project will support growth.

Beating your meeting gremlins may feel more like a game of whack-a-mole than a professional battle, but using efficient software for project management can help streamline communication. However, setting expectations and understanding the needs of each gremlin will help you beat them at their own game.

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How to Beat the Level 

The cheat code here is to mitigate the impact of your meeting gremlins and maximize the team’s time to work and focus. This may take some creative blocking and tackling on your part. You can do this by:

  • Creating a communication plan that everyone (including the meeting gremlin) agrees to.
  • Setting a regular meeting cadence.
  • Establishing clear meeting agendas and objectives for scheduled meetings.
  • Using project management tools to track decisions and actions so meeting gremlins can get updates on progress in real-time.
  • Sending proactive but asynchronous updates for meeting gremlins at regular intervals.
  • Establish some meeting-free blocks for your team to have heads-down working time — and enforce them.

Level 2: Scope and Feature Creep – The Shapeshifter

In this graphic, the shape-shifter—a purple creature with multiple arms—attacks our video game character, who is protecting herself by setting boundaries.
The shape-shifter is a daunting enemy, but it can be defeated with the power of healthy boundaries.

Villain Character: The Shapeshifter

In the second level, you may encounter the shapeshifter. This villain changes form easily, adding limbs (or other features) or changing his look entirely, sometimes multiple times in a few minutes.

This is similar to how stakeholders for a complex project may ask for additional revisions, new features, or even a change in direction at a moment’s notice.

The Challenge

Your mission here is to try to stop the shapeshifter from shifting, and, if you can’t, try to minimize the number of times they shift.

In a complex project, you might never be able to completely eliminate scope or feature creep, but you can try to minimize it and its impact on the project team as much as possible.

How to Beat the Level 

To beat this level, you should put some strategies in place to:

  • Set clear project boundaries.
  • Regularly review project scope with stakeholders.
  • Implement change control processes.

Level 3: High-Risk Environments

In this graphic, two video game characters look with concern at a box with a question mark on it, representing the element of uncertainty.
The element of uncertainty is always present, and can attack when you least expect it.

Villain Character: The Element of Uncertainty

While you can’t always see this villain, you will certainly feel their presence. As you move through this level, you may find yourself having to make decisions without having all the information you need. Or, even if you think you have all the necessary information, this villain may pop out of the shadows, bringing more details, requirements, or expectations that weren’t communicated to you and your project team.

If you’ve ever worked on or managed a complex project, this villain is probably very familiar to you. Unpredictability and risks are inherent in complex projects, which are often also high-risk environments.

The Challenge

The challenge you face at this level is minimizing the number of times the element of uncertainty appears. You may never get this number down to zero, but the goal is still to get the number as low as possible.

In a project, you also want to minimize the amount of uncertainty or ambiguity your team is facing. Consequently, making requirements and tasks as clear as possible is a big part of being a project manager.

How to Beat the Level 

While there is always some uncertainty when starting a large complex project, there are some things you can do to minimize ambiguity and help the team understand dependencies and how to keep making project progress. These include:

  • Asking questions and conducting stakeholder interviews
  • Prioritizing discovery before beginning the project
  • Performing comprehensive risk assessments and developing risk management plans.
  • Using flexible project methodologies like Agile to develop iterative plans and manage unknowns.
  • Having continuous stakeholder engagement and communication.

Level 4: Resource Constraints

In this graphic, a black and purple creature reaches out several arms to steal as many resources as it can, prompting a warning about low resources in the bottom left corner.
The Hydra of Resources is fast and is able to multiply itself, making it one of the game's most difficult villains.

Villain Character: The Hydra of Resources

In this level, one of the most challenging levels of our game, you will battle against the Hydra of Resources. Every time you and your teammate manage one resource constraint, another three will appear—sometimes, all at the same time.

This villain represents the relentless challenge of dealing with limited resources in complex project management. Even with the longer timelines, increased resources, and bigger budgets that come with larger and more complex projects, constraints still exist. Sometimes, constraints for complex projects are even harder to resolve than constraints for smaller and more straightforward projects.

The Challenge

Resource constraints can negatively impact project timelines and risk your ability to deliver on the full scope. Mitigate resource constraints with easy-to-use apps for project management. Feel empowered to make difficult decisions and provide creative solutions to resource constraints that pop up as you play the game or work through the project.

How to Beat the Level 

In order to beat the hydra, there are some things you can do to manage resources based on interdependencies or changes in the schedule, scope, or budget. These include:

  • Prioritizing project elements based on value and the impact to the business or users.
  • Being efficient in your resource allocation and management.
  • Adding buffer time or slack to the project plan as you can.
  • Negotiating for additional resources or adjusting project scope as necessary.

Mastering The Game—Advanced Project Management Techniques

Practice makes perfect. So, as you play your game or manage more projects, you gain new techniques for overcoming any villains you might encounter. Here are a few ways to level up your skills and be able to compete at higher levels.

Adaptive Strategies and Agile Responses

One way to beat your game is to use some of the principles associated with Agile methodologies to enhance flexibility and responsiveness in your project management.

This might look like working in sprints, so your team can focus on delivering value in smaller increments. The end of your sprint should result in a demonstration of the work completed, which might satisfy your meeting gremlins by giving them frequent visibility into progress. But, if this doesn’t feel like enough for them, you could invite them into your daily standup, backlog grooming, or refinement sessions. Since Agile welcomes daily collaboration between the development team and business stakeholders, this is not an unheard of strategy.

Another way that using Agile might help you slay your villains by providing a framework (the sprint and sprint goal) to keep scope creep at bay. Once the sprint goal is set and the sprint is planned, there is very little wiggle room to add scope. Any new features can be added to the backlog and planned for future sprints, minimizing distractions for the team.

A short sprint can also help remove some uncertainty from the near term, as the team will be able to focus on the task at hand and then consider other needs in future sprints.

Team Dynamics and Role Distribution

Another way to beat the game, or manage a very complex project, is to be extremely clear about roles and responsibilities.

In any multiplayer game, each player on the team has a role in conquering the level and taking down the villain. This is also true in the lifecycle of a complex project. In your project, you might document these roles in a RACI chart that you can share with the broader team to minimize confusion.

As the project manager, you would also be responsible for making a plan at each level and problem-solving with the rest of the players.

You can start by ensuring you have the right number of players with the right skill for the level. Next, you can move into task management mode and plan the roadmap and corresponding tasks you’ll complete to slay the villain.

The big takeaway here is that you don’t have to go it alone. Teamwork is what will help keep the villains in check.

This is not unlike a complex or megaproject you take on at work. You start by mapping out the milestones of the project and the team members or resources you’ll need to get there. You might want to check in with your team early on to discuss any risks that they see based on their unique roles and past experience working on project teams.

This will help you and your team be proactive in making sure the villains (or project risks) don’t overtake you or derail your project.

Add to Your Inventory—Project Management Tools

Just like you have different tools and cheat codes in a video game, you have a ton of tools at your disposal to help you manage complex projects and prevent anything from coming between you and project success. This is why people use project management solutions.  

Software types include (but aren’t limited to):

  1. Project Planning Tools - Project planning tools can help you create your project plan, assign resources, and get everyone on the same page. In addition to sharing the plan with your internal team, it might be wise to also share the plan with clients or other stakeholders as part of your effective communication strategy.
  2. Resource Management Software - Some project planning tools also have resource management functionalities baked in. If yours doesn’t, though, it might be wise to invest in resource management software to help you understand when team members are overbooked or under-utilized.
  3. Collaboration Tools - Collaboration tools are essential in complex projects. These might include video conferencing tools like Zoom or Google Meet, messenger tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, whiteboard software like Mural or Miro, or even screen recording tools like Loom or Vidyard for those times when a meeting could almost be an email but needs some visuals.
  4. Workflow Management Software - This software can help you manage common workflows across the project lifecycle. If you have repeatable workflows, like onboarding project members, a QA process, or deploying to production, this software can help you automate those processes, saving time for more important things, like managing stakeholders and overall project delivery.
  5. Project Tracking Software  - With large projects, having project tracking software is another essential. While your project planning software may also serve this function, you want to ensure you have a solution available to you. From watching pacing on different milestones or deliverables to looking at the overall project goals, you want to know how the team is progressing towards completing the project on time.
  6. Risk Management Software - With project complexity comes additional risk. Creating and implementing a risk management plan can help the team (and stakeholders) stay ahead of the curve when it comes to risks. If you want a tool to help you with this, consider adding risk management software to your tech stack for your project. As the project manager, you may hold risk management meetings over the course of the project to update the risk log as well as the risk management plan.

You can narrow down which software type to use once you make a list of the most important project management system features that you need for your team.

Learning From Each Play-through 

Just like it might take you a few tries to beat each level of a difficult game, the more practice you have managing complex projects, the easier it will be to spot and eliminate the villains or issues that lurk in the shadows waiting to derail your success.

But, the more games you play, the more strategies you may need to develop to beat all the villains. The way you handle a meeting gremlin in one game may be very different than how you overtake the meeting gremlin you encounter in another game. 

In this article, we've presented a number of ways to level up when it comes to managing complex projects. Choosing a few strategies to implement can help you improve your current process and make your work easier, more transparent, and more efficient.

Join The Digital Project Manager Community For More Project Management Insights

Special thanks to Sara Fisher and Kelsey Pierson for their invaluable ideas and contributions to this article. I was able to connect with Sara and Kelsey through The DPM Community. If you also want to connect with other digital project managers to share resources and best practices, you can join our membership community to get access to 100+ templates, samples, and examples and connect with 100s of other digital project managers in Slack.

Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, A-CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.