How to Manage Complexity in Large-Scale Projects With Early Planning

Large, long-term projects are—by necessity—more complex. Here’s how to ensure that complexity doesn’t derail you, via full visibility and robust backup plans.

Read time: 7 min

Who this is for and why it matters

Let’s talk about Boeing.

Most of us have heard of the Dreamliner—the bestselling passenger widebody of all time. Boeing’s triumph. A plane that promised (and by all counts delivered) cleaner air, a smoother ride, and a quieter experience.

It was also a complex project that went off the rails—arriving three years late and 120% over budget.

The reason, according to university researchers, was underestimating complexity. Boeing estimated that changes to their process would save them two years on delivery timeline.

But they failed to account for the additional complexity they had introduced with those new processes (which involved a wider, more complicated network of suppliers than usual).

Ultimately, the Dreamliner hit the market and Boeing had their day in the sun. But they also learned an expensive lesson along the way—and one we can learn from, too.

Create a system factoring complexity—before you kick off your project

The core lesson of Boeing? Don’t underestimate complexity—or the processes and tracking need to have in place in order to manage it properly. This means having plans (and excellent tracking) in place for:

  • Talent shifts and turnover
  • Budget changes
  • Software and tool changes
  • Physical tool and resource availability (where applicable)
  • Supplier and partner changes
  • Time and availability fluctuations

So, how do we prepare for complexity across all those dimensions? Our framework stands on three foundations:

  • Strategic fail-safes and backups that minimize slow-downs
  • Built-in buffers that support agility
  • Detailed, real-time tracking of all resources

How to Manage Complexity in Large-Scale Projects With Early Planning TL;DR Diagram

Head off problems in advance with strategic fail-safes

Obviously, the faster you can react to a resource change, the more likely you are to stay on track with allotted time, budget, and other resources. Which is why the more complex the project, the more time you should spend up front putting fail-safes and backup options in place.

Fail-safes for headcount changes

With an average turnover rate between 10% (enterprises) and 12% (SMBs), large projects will inevitably deal with some talent and team changeover.

Normally, replacing headcount or filling the gaps creates a pretty hefty time tax on our teams. But there are ways to reduce that substantially with a little advance planning (and some help from HR).

Typical vs Fail-safe Headcount Process Diagram

One simple strategy (shown above) is to create an ongoing process for HR to always be ready with talent to step into unforeseen gaps. Instead of waiting until someone quits to post a job, sift through resumes, and choose interviewees, create an ongoing process that allows HR to take preventative measures.

This lets them to solicit people with appropriate skills and keep fresh resumes on file—allowing you to effectively skip the solicitation and resume sifting stages of the typical new employee process.

Another way to strategically prepare for the inevitable shifts in talent is to maintain a robust stable of contractors. Even better if someone regularly checks their availability and all team leads have easy access to that information.

Better still if contractors have all already been onboarded onto necessary internal systems and all you have to do is flip a switch to give them access. The same goes for suppliers.

The better your supplier list, the more suppliers you add to key systems. And the more you work on important connections before your project—the easier it is for a backup supplier or another company to fill in if a supplier fails, shuts down, or affects availability and schedules.

Fail-safes for time changes

Even without loss of headcount, time availability is often a fluid thing—especially on large, long-term projects. People fall ill, have personal disasters, need vacations, or get temporarily pulled into other high-priority projects.

Just like with managing headcount, there are proactive ways to minimize the risk of these time shifts. One particularly effective option is detailed cross-training.

Just like actors have understudies who can step into a role if the primary role-holder is out sick or quits, teams can create cross-training programs that prepare “understudies” to step into gaps even if something isn’t their primary skillset. This can help with turnover and other less-permanent headcount losses (such as illness or if someone gets pulled onto another high-priority project temporarily).

Cross-training should be a full team effort, with managers able to step into temporary gaps as well. If you’re from a startup background, this may already be in your playbook, but often larger or established companies overlook this strategy—even though it can create a lot of agility.

For the hesitant, Operations and Strategy Executive Frank Viquez makes a compelling case for prioritizing cross-training before you need it most:

Frank Viquez Quote Graphic

Keep in mind that cross-training should fit naturally into a team. Employees should understudy skills they are already interested in learning and that complement their existing skill sets. A lack of desire or big departure from their skill set can lead to burnout.

Build in buffers that support complexity and agility

As we can see from the Boeing example, assuming more complexity will require less time is a recipe for disaster. Instead, assume your complex projects need buffers.

If past projects have averaged 10% more time than anticipated, give your complex projects 15%. If the project is new, challenging, or introduces more resources than usual, err on the side of overestimating.

Some managers may be concerned that this will mean idle time for teams, but in our experience, that’s rarely the case. There are always things that need to be done, always other teams that need help, always changes that require agile responses. But there isn’t always someone available to do them.

If you find you need more time, you’ll be glad you buffered. If you find that your initial estimate was spot-on, you may still be glad you buffered—with teams able to step into other project gaps.

Make it all possible with easy, real-time tracking

Every single one of the strategies above is only possible when leadership has visibility into every part of the process. From headcount to project status to time and resource changes to supplier availability.

To create that visibility, start with:

  • An easy-to-use, centralized project management tool with real-time tracking
  • Processes and clear expectations for teams to track and enter data in real time

The fewer tools you use to track and manage progress, the better. But if you do have additional tools you simply must use, it’s also vital to make sure they integrate with your primary tool.

As Alexis Valentin, Global Head of Business Development at the software company Pigment, explained how her team took on a scaling effort with a single source of truth.

Alexis Valentin Quote Graphic Final

The result of this effort was an 88% increase in onboarding efficiency and 20% better team communication. With efficient tracking, large projects are more accountable—giving you enough time to pivot.

Complex projects require proactive strategies (fail safes and buffers)

As Boeing learned the hard way, even when added complexity seems like it can speed up our processes, the complexity itself requires careful management. The more resources–people, suppliers, tools, budgets–you juggle, the more chances there are to drop a proverbial ball.

Don't let that be the case. There are ways you can improve overall efficiency and safegaurd your processes.

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If you have a complex project coming up, register for our Showcase Webinar to see how ClickUp can provide the visibility you need to put your fail-safes and buffers into place–and know when you need to use them.

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