Complicated vs. Complex: the human factor in project management

Classic, agile or hybrid project management – what do I choose in a project?  The Stacey Matrix (after the organizational theorist Ralph D. Stacey) can provide a decision support. A criteria catalog is used to assess how well a project plan is already understood – in terms of requirements on the one hand and the solution approach on the other. Are the requirements clear or are we moving into a new, as yet unknown market? Are you using a well mastered technology or a new one with which you have no experience?

Simple, complicated, chaotic?

Along these two axes, the Stacey matrix divides a project into the categories simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. According to the so-called Cynefin framework, simple systems are ordered so clearly that they can be understood immediately. Complicated systems are difficult to understand. With expert knowledge, however, it is possible to understand and predict their cause-effect relationships in advance.

Although complex systems are also determined by clear causalities, they exhibit so many interactions that even experts are no longer able to analyze them sufficiently in advance. The correlations can only be recognized and understood afterwards. A system is described as chaotic if there are no clear causal relationships and one and the same cause can produce completely different effects.

A small example illustrates this:
For a meteorologist, for example, a weather forecast for the next hour may be simple, one for the next day complicated. A forecast for the next week, on the other hand, might be a complex problem, while the forecast for one day of the next year is certainly a chaotic one.

As long as project plans are simple or complicated, they can be well mastered with a waterfall like, firmly predefined procedure depending on the expertise. However, the more they tend towards complexity, the more an agile, flexible approach with many feedback loops and the possibility of trial and error is recommended. I think this is a plausible approach, which, by the way, can be applied not only to entire projects, but also selectively to individual areas in a project.

The social dimension

But perhaps this approach is not quite enough. We have talked about requirements and about approaches to solutions, but not yet about the people who work together in the project. Isn’t their organizational and social interaction also simple, complicated or complex to chaotic? And doesn’t this factor have the same major impact on the success of the project? In my opinion, this is precisely the point at which one must speak of unpredictability, i.e. complexity.

A well-rehearsed team that has been working together for years can certainly be classified as easy. However, it is often forgotten that hardly predictable dynamics can occur in a newly assembled team or in a new cooperation of different departments with different interests. Here, agile methods with their focus on results-oriented communication can be the key to mastering the project.

So perhaps we should add a third dimension, “social interaction”, to the two axes “requirements” and “solution approach” in order to complete the decision model and lay the foundation for project success.

Context is King – virtual collaboration in product development

The past two months have given the topic of virtual collaboration an enormous boost. The Corona crisis has forced everyone to deal with this topic. And the conclusion is consistently positive!

In the first few weeks, the main task was to create the possibilities for virtual collaboration. Now it is a matter of continuing to use the potential of these possibilities after the return to “normality”. What’s even more: many companies are taking the experience they have gained as an opportunity to rethink their structural and process organization and to further digitalize business processes.

Special case product development

While common office solutions in combination with video conferencing are easy to use in areas such as administration, marketing or sales, they often reach their limits in product development. One reason for this is, among others, the high level of interdisciplinarity in this area. Many different specialist teams have to work together at the same time and on several projects. Added to this is the high complexity of the work objects, which are often developed as structures and have many different relationships with each other. In order to work together productively under these conditions, the possibilities of the usual IT tools are not sufficient.

New requirements for IT tools

Intelligent platform solutions for collaborative product lifecycle management (PLM), which enable context-related interdisciplinary work, provide a remedy here. Context-related means that all work objects are linked to each other and can be called up at any time in the work process and from any context. Analysts like Gartner speak of content collaboration tools. This means that you can navigate from one work item to all neighboring work items without having to search and ask questions. This guarantees efficient and valid collaboration, especially in distributed teams.

Intelligent platform solutions offer yet another advantage in collaboration: a common environment in which all project participants can inform themselves and view changes directly. Cross-team chat functions, so-called activity streams, support the consistent exchange of information on the current status of the project. Especially in virtual collaboration, this guarantees a continuous flow of information, which in most cases more than compensates for the lack of “office grapevine” or the meeting at the coffee machine. Gartner has a term ready for this, too, which is Workstream Collaboration.

Another key component of intelligent platform solutions is the use of integrated task boards, which allow development teams to organize their tasks independently. In the past, task lists with several hundred entries were often used. Today, task boards allow only important milestones or quality gates to be set, but leave the individual tasks within the milestones to the teams themselves. This allows an interdisciplinary, distributed team to carry out a joint weekly planning on screen in virtual sessions, e.g. via Zoom.

The main advantage of integrated task boards is the direct linking of to-do cards on the boards with the work objects. This avoids not only the time-consuming search for the appropriate work objects, but also error and version risks. These additional expenses and risks usually occur with purchased individual solutions.


The Corona crisis has prepared the ground for the continuous expansion of virtual collaboration – also in product development – from now on. Product development places special demands on IT tools for efficient virtual collaboration. Especially working in context is a decisive productivity factor here. Selected intelligent platform solutions for collaborative PLM already meet these requirements today.

Risks and safety – (just) an issue in times of crisis?

Germany and almost all other countries are facing a crisis! Within a very short time we had to realize that an infectious organic structure with a size of a few nanometers is causing gigantic damage worldwide and is turning our lives upside down. We suddenly realize how vulnerable our existence is and how our own need for security always comes to the fore when everything around us can no longer be taken for granted.

History teaches us that it doesn’t matter what the name of a disaster is – COVID-19, 9/11, Fukushima or Tsunami, safety and risks have to be reconsidered and reassessed in each case. Because too much security makes any system slow and cumbersome. By contrast, too many risks, however, entail a high degree of danger – not only for the individual, but also for society as a whole.

The consideration and evaluation of product risks is a familiar topic in the PLM world. Risk management is often perceived as an annoying accessory, which essentially causes a lot of paper to be filled. However, the concrete added value is not always immediately apparent. This is where the change of perspective from producer to consumer helps: Countless test and quality seals in every area of daily life ensure that products are safe to use, for example the TÜV for the car, the CE mark on the notebook or the GS seal on the office chair. Nobody wants to do without the fact that the product he uses is sufficiently safe and that he can use it without major risks.

Three fundamental insights have become apparent for my consulting work:

  1. Think the unthinkable
    Science and technology make us feel more and more that nothing can happen to us. But this certainty can be deceptive. Sometimes we only feel safe because we are not (yet) aware of risks or because we misjudge them.
  2. You cannot think as stupidly as it may come
    It will never be possible to anticipate every risk and to be prepared for all eventualities or even be insured against them. Nevertheless, risk management trains the eye for possible dangers and effective countermeasures. Regularly thinking about risks and sounding out parameters for security in times of no crisis trains thought structures and action patterns. These consequently form a solid basis for sound crisis management.
  3. Necessity is the mother of invention
    Unknown situations paralyze one’s own thinking and acting at first, but as a consequence they stimulate creativity in particular. There is enormous potential here for innovative and efficient ideas on how to achieve great things with existing onboard resources. So every crisis also offers the chance for change and improvement.

Corona ensures that the golden mean between safety and risk in all areas of life can once again be balanced under the given parameters. Perhaps the changed perspectives will even make it possible to take a more positive view of risk management in PLM and give free rein to one’s own creativity both in assessing risks and developing safe products?