Supporting Complex Projects

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA) have an initiative called Project X.

Project X is

a vehicle to engage contemporary research in project and programme with the ‘real-world’ issues that are manifest across the Government’s Major Project Portfolio (GMPP). Project X is ambitious, it seeks to promote and support methodologically rigorous research that is firmly grounded in clear pathways to impact – with an ultimate ambition of delivering savings for the project delivery and enhancing project management capability across government departments and industry.

As part of the initiative, different organisations are taking part and making contributions, the Association for Project Management (APM) is one of them and a recent report called Developing the Practice of Governance – was released.

The report focuses on how project practitioners could improve governance on their projects and of course, that’s a subject that should interest any PMO practitioner too.

As part of the weekly #PMOwfh session, we had one of the authors of that report join us. It sparked some really interesting and new insights which we think you’ll enjoy exploring too.

Let’s get started

Developing the Practice of GovernanceBefore we get into the session itself, it will be a useful addition to your PMO reading to take a look at the report from APM

You might also be interested in understanding what other kinds of research have been taking place in the name of Project X too.

The main session was presented by Patrick Hoverstadt – we really like his book too – Patterns of Strategy.

The Video Session

In the video session, Patrick introduces us to something called – Viable System Model.

“Large projects operate in complex environments and complexity is important and must be managed through the use of appropriate tools, known as problem structuring methods (PSMs),” states the report. “A tool that is particularly applicable to organisational evaluation is the viable system model (VSM) and its application to a governance system is described more fully in this report.”

Within the session, we also got into major projects – discussing the complexity and what that means.

Take a look at the video session and deck, then read on for more takeaways.

The Deck

Take a closer look at the deck Patrick shared


One thing was clear on the session – there weren’t many who already support megaprojects (classified for ease as >£1 billion).

That alone got us thinking – I wonder what we could learn from those PMOs that do support projects of this nature – watch out for a future session at PMO Flashmob when we investigate that further!

Meanwhile back to the session, what on earth is a Viable System Model?

“A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable”

Businessballs describes it well for the novice:

The main basis of Beer’s VSM was that organisations are far more complex in terms of their control systems that we would often like to believe, or understand. The framework by which control is exerted throughout an organisation or system relies heavily upon multiple interconnected layers, communicating with one another. Organisational charts, describing hierarchies and job roles, often neglect the processes through which the business or system truly functions. Relationships between individuals, departments and groups are, in reality, far more nuanced than managerial control.

The diagram on the left is a representation of an organisation, complex organisations which have multi-organisational systems. From a project point of view, the same applies – there is complexity in the different parts or elements of the project – especially in the interdependencies between project elements.
The VSM clarifies parameters for flexibility for each element and defines limits of viability for each project element.  You can tell if any element is under threat and which others it threatens, so, early warning of potential failures is flagged up.

It’s certainly not your average subject that the PMO looks at or tackles!

What do I need to know?

There are a couple of key insights you need to be aware of

(1) There are different types of projects – ‘Fixed Target’ and ‘Moving Target’ and the governance arrangements need to differ for both of them.

(2) The whole ecosystem of projects includes three domains or elements – the project organisation, the project tasks and the environment in which the project is being run. It’s these three which need focus in order to reduce complexity or increase stability – and in turn, ensure better project outcomes.

What does it mean for the PMO?

During the chat on the session there were a number of areas picked up on:

Mindshift – From trying to freeze requirement changes at the start  – To recognising change is inevitable and managing it – Building ability to flex throughout the project structure & lifetime

Fluidity – For the PMO to effectively deal with the fluidity we have to learn to accept it as part of reality, something historically we haven’t been good at doing. Working with fluidity reinforces our (PMO) need to be facilitators – decision enabling, not decision making. Our skill is not necessarily knowing the answers, but what questions to ask.

Risk Management – Is the bog-standard risk management process sufficient to deal with this level of complexity? I don’t see many organisations having much more than the basic PxI risk register.

Complexity – The upfront complexity matrix/ questionnaire is a useful tool for determining the level of uncertainty [available here] This is used to set the appropriate governance level and processes which would also include approach to change.

Political – Large projects of work become so political that you can’t do anything with them – Conway’s Law

Check out this presentation from Michael Frahm – you’ll learn more about the VSM here too:

For the bookshelf:

The Oxford Handbook of Megaprojects

Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies, and Practices for Success

About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay is the founder of PMO Flashmob and a Director at PMO Learning - the sister company to PMO Flashmob and the best training company for PMO people in the world! She's also the creator of London's first dedicated PMO Conference; Director of Arras People and PMO enthusiast. Loves dogs and gin.

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