LEADING PROJECTS IN A CHAOTIC ENVIRONMENT

29 August, 2018

Construction projects can become chaotic given the level of complexity, dynamics, multiple stakeholders involved and constant changes right from the beginning. In India alone, according to Hindustan Times, as many as 356 infrastructure projects, each worth USD$250K or above, were reported to have a combined cost overrun of USD$35 billion owing to delays that stem from the inability of the project organization to deliver within the set time frame. The art of project management requires flexibility and the ability to steady the course of a project.  Yet, time and again, some project managers do struggle to deliver, despite having the best competencies in the subject, and can sometimes result in good performers wearing down and teams having diminishing performances. This article presents six high level strategies for managing project in a chaotic environment.

Understanding the nature of projects is essential to examine the reasons for possible failures. Chaotic projects are characterised by a collection of small changes that result in large disruption in the day-to-day running. These changes tend to have many interdependencies, both internally and externally. Internal sources of chaos include conflicts due to lack of alignment on expectations, ill effects of poor planning, and ripples created by powerful influencers. External chaos comes from entities outside the control of the project organization such as regulatory, or governmental agencies.

Project managers who apply traditional techniques to manage chaotic projects will find that can be somewhat ineffective, as traditional techniques are derived for changes happening within a stable, non-dynamic and linear project environment. Chaos, however, does not follow these assumptions and requires a different refined approach.

If not managed right, chaos in construction projects will not only bring financial burdens, but also take a toll on the emotional and physical well-being of every team member. To uncover best practice, I will discuss six strategies to aid project leadership and achieve success under unforeseen circumstances:

1. Acknowledge Chaos - From the start of a project, leadership should acknowledge and estimate the potential extent of chaos. Across all stakeholders, and depth of project organization, this acknowledgement is imperative to develop a realistic response process. Traditional methodologies set-up for developing project execution plans and risk assessment, which are useful. Identifying external and internal sources of chaos will ensure clear control measures are developed.

2. Identify Sensitive Patterns - Chaos is order, in a disorderly fashion. By peeling layers of unknowns into comprehensible categories, patterns can be identified within the disorder. Some of these patterns are more sensitive than others in consuming project resources. Knowing the impact of such sensitive patterns helps in developing the most  appropriate project structure and processes to deal with chaos.

3. Using Classical Tools and Methodologies – Traditional tools and methodologies are generally found to be useful where patterns can be identified in a complicated environment. For instance, in a project where work fronts can open in unplanned manner, a contracting model involving a larger number of trade contractors in a term contract model can still be applied from a traditional toolbox.

4. Thinking Out of The Box – Where traditional methods fail to address the impact of chaos, it is necessary to develop innovative means to keep the project on track. This is best done in a design-thinking-workshop environment, where a wide-group of stakeholders carry out an interactive process of problem definition, scenario assessment and solutions development.

5. Contingency Planning for The Unknowns - Despite all planning and preparation, project teams will face unknown-unknowns along the path of execution. A Harvard study on 60,000 CEO hours reveal that up to 60% of CEO time is spent on managing unplanned situations. Project leaders need to set aside appropriate time to the nature of the project to deal with unknowns. When unconsumed, sponge time can be effectively used for forward planning and is therefore not equivalent to wasted time. This strategy is also likely to impact the financial performance of the project the most.

6. Learn Faster Than the Change - Managing chaotic projects requires the ability to traverse steep learning curves. Highly adaptable project managers continuously scan their environment to make ad-hoc fine-tuned adjustments. This enables the project manager to get in front of the chaos in a continuous, and progressive manner before it develops into a more serious challenge.

At project set-up stage, full visibility of the challenges are yet unknown, making it impossible for the leadership to apply their strategic lens. As such, leaders will find the first ninety days best geared towards a traditional model, but it is equally important to keep an open mindset towards understanding the nature of potential chaos in the project.

A sensible leadership capable of managing changes and chaos will enable successful project delivery, and create a thriving environment that stimulates, motivates and develops its people for the long run.

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Sreekanth APV

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