Managing Complex Projects: Agile and Traditional Perspective (And Resources)

manage complex projectsIt is generally believed that if you use Agile project management methodologies managing complex projects becomes messy and unmanageable.

This is due to the incorrect belief that large projects with complex platforms, upfront delivery schedules, and large project teams are hard to manage in the dynamic project environment.

In this post let us examine the Agile and Traditional project management approach to managing large and complex projects.

First, take a moment and answer this question –

What is the most critical skill required for the project manager to manage complex projects?

  • Technical skills,
  • Business management skills,
  • Leadership skills,
  • Project management skills

You’d be surprised to know the answer: Leadership skills.

This in no way means that other skills are not required, but only indicates that leadership skills can be the difference between success and failure for large and complex projects.

In fact, the larger and more complex the project gets, the critical is the need for leadership skills. As an analogy, what would be the most critical skill required for a CEO of an organization? Technical, Managerial, Business, and Leadership. If you answered the last one, you’ve got the above point.

This graphic from Project Management Institute (image courtesy: demonstrates the need for leadership skills in complex projects.

Rotation-MostImportantv2.ashx reports in the white paper titled “Fundamental Insights On Minimizing Complex Project Risk for a Single Project” that “complexity in the project stems from the interdependence of a large number of contributors; and variability of the project’s outcome stems directly from the natural variability of the delivery from each of these contributors”.

It proposes the following two points to manage these complex projects –

  • Reduce complexity – either by reducing number of contributors, or inter-dependencies between them
  • Minimize natural variability of delivery from contributors – by involving experienced contributors and using proven technologies

How To Manage Complex Projects Using Agile Methodology?

If you are familiar (or using) Agile methodologies such as Scrum to manage projects, and are wondering how can it be used to manage large and complex projects, you might find the following video useful.

This was presented by Mike Haze, Director of Product Management for Volusion. He explains that one can fully adopt and leverage an agile methodology throughout the complete product life-cycle, exploiting the advantages of tools your teams are already using that are integrated into the development process. Recording Link courtesy:

Complex Project – Planning Efforts

Chris Carson and Glen Palmer presented their views on planning efforts for complex projects during the 54th Annual Meeting of AACE International. They highlight Gilbane’s “card trick”, a practice similar to the Agile’s “storyboarding” technique, that helps manage to simplify complexities and manage the whole planning exercise.

Here’s a quick look at their presentation –

PMI’s take on managing large and complex projects

A post on project management isn’t complete without considering recommendations from the premier body in Project management domain world over.

PMI published a practical guide to managing complex projects, called Navigating Complexity. This ebook is available free for download from PMI site, here.

This guide identifies three major categories where complexity in a project stems from –

1. Human behavior Individual as well as group behaviors tend to introduce complexity into the project. Communication of information and lack there of, can also cause misconceptions or faulty decisions in the project. Organizational variables such as organizational structure, managerial authority, processes, reporting hierarchy, and training can contribute towards increasing complexity of the project.

2. System behavior Connectedness of components of projects or a program, dependencies between programs and projects, and system dynamics resulting from these two factors (connectedness and inter-dependencies) contribute towards project complexity.

3. Ambiguity Unanticipated change and uncertainty are main causes of ambiguity in the system. Further, the book outlines useful practices and analyzes complexity scenarios and possible actions. It also proposes an assessment questionnaire, that helps identify root causes. Further, it helps one develop an action plan to tackle project complexity and increase chances of success. You can also download the following complexity assessment artifacts for free from –

  • Complexity Assessment
  • Resource Gap Analysis
  • Skills Assessment

These tools, templates, and the practical guide provide a framework to deal with project complexity and manage them well.


It is quite possible to manage large and complex projects in either of Agile and Traditional ways as we have seen above – it really boils down to the right analysis and simplification by identifying factors causing and influencing project complexity and breaking them down.

In my personal view, I have built projects that are decently complex (team size 30-35) using Traditional project management methodology and smaller projects using Agile, and I tend to agree that even complex projects can be managed using multiple smaller teams and well-organized plan using Agile methodology.

What has been your experience?

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