Complexity Busting

by | Feb 11, 2022 | Blog Post

The best-in-class project-selection process reduces complexity and accelerates good decision making.

Complexity is a problem all of us have to deal with. And it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon. The scientific law of entropy show’s the universe’s trajectory is toward disorder. We know from experience that sensory overload leads to lack of focus. What is relevant becomes indistinguishable from what is not.

A well-documented, pressing issue for businesses is coping with ever-increasing complexity. There are hidden factors and unintended consequences as the systems we build become more capable and sophisticated. Therefore, a holistic view of the entirety of a portfolio is necessary for a successful outcome. We must be able to see what’s hidden by complexity in the same way a functional magnetic resonance imaging device reveals internal organs of the human body.

Process simplification is an ongoing task. Any project selection process should be made up of inputs and outputs to achieve a stated goal: the right mix of projects in a portfolio. However, without a defined process, inputs and outputs become random, ineffective, and confusing.


With any meal, first we need to decide what we are making and who we’re cooking for. Then we can collect the ingredients. The same is true for process design.

1. Criteria

What do we want? Can we state it clearly? And compared to what? Clarifying our purpose may seem obvious, but this can become one of those victims of complexity. We may easily lose our bearings. Project-purpose amnesia is common.

2. Information

Portfolio and individual project decisions are based on relevant information. This, of course, is an easy statement to make. But how do we know what is relevant to our purpose? And once we’ve sorted out what is and isn’t useful, where do we keep it? And how do we access it?

Form follows function. Our function is to search for significance and reject what is immaterial. We need to separate information from mere data. Technology can help us to build a process in order to retrieve relevant information rapidly. Nevertheless, managing that information requires blunt project assessment and scoring, and this is a rational human process.

3. Reports

How we see affects the way we think. The result of our queries should be easily understood. This is done through choosing the right technology and user skill set.

When we only see part of the whole picture, we are apt to make mistakes. Even if all the relevant data is presented to us, we can still have difficulty deciphering it. Rows of columns and figures can hide interdependencies and resource-sucking, low value projects. Only by seeing a holistic view are we in a position to make informed and rational decisions.

4. Select and Prioritize

This is where the rubber meets the road. Process must be designed to arrive at the portfolio of projects that maximizes contribution to the business within the organization’s resource limitations.


Process Design

Process design is part art and part science. It requires a core competency, so if you don’t have experience in business-process design, get help. There is not enough space here for an in-depth discussion of the many particulars of theoretical process design. The purpose here is to give you a practical guide to what continues to work well with respect to PPM.

Step 1: Go!

On your marks! Get set! Slow down! This may seem counterintuitive, but as we initiate a process we need to slow down. Later we’ll reap the rewards and speed up. Let’s not cut corners here. This is where the mandate for change is created.

Key activities in this first step include:

  • Select the process owner, team leader, and core team
  • Identify a business goal and rationale for the project
  • Gain executive consensus
  • Secure resources required for success
  • Complete voice-of-the-customer analysis
  • Identify customer-driven objectives

Voice of the customer is a method of ensuring all relevant voices are heard. Those who participate are more likely to take ownership of a process and less likely to sabotage it, as in the often-heard refrain “not invented here.” Take some time to identify all people who will influence and use the process selected, and poll them for initial input. What do they want? What do they need? What are they enthusiastic about? What will they never accept even if you try until the planet suffers heat death? The effort that goes into gaining constituent acceptance may be a huge undertaking (think presidential campaign).

A multifaceted team will bring diverse perspectives, so long as we create an environment for open dialogue. But this is not without its obvious challenges. Include cross-discipline and cross-business unit representation. Failure to include constituents runs the real risk of having some corporate group go off and develop their own new process in isolation. Factionalism is a symptom of approaching disaster. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

We can mitigate this situation by clarifying who will own the process. Business leaders create the plans. A process owner is responsible for designing processes to achieve those objectives. So what is this responsibility? Here’s a list:

  • Design and implementation of the new / improved process
  • Development of process-measurement systems
  • Process conformance
  • Evaluation and monitoring of process performance
  • Distribution and publishing performance levels
  • Continuous improvement plan

A process owner is the only person who has the authority to make changes in the process and should be the only contact for all process related information. He or she manages (with the help of the process -improvement team) the entire process improvement cycle to ensure performance effectiveness. Primary responsibilities are in the creation, updating, and approval of support documents. These include procedures, work instructions, and protocols.

Step 2: Map What Exists

Compare a map of Boston to one of Indianapolis. In parts of Boston, the streets look like a tangled web (charming though they may be). Streets intersect in no particular order. In Indianapolis there is a grid structure. The city was conceived as a whole. How to get from one place to another is far easier. Moreover, it’s built for efficiency despite all the usual suspects: traffic congestion, road maintenance, and accidents. Many of the quaint streets in Boston were rural paths years ago; now they are paved over.

A process must be reasoned and articulated. Some companies have no processes. Others have a stated process (the one they talk about) and an emergent process (the one they actually do). Nevertheless, we must see what exists whether it’s a defined process or a tangled web of ad hoc decisions. What’s going on here? We need an unblinking look at the real situation. Hiding symptoms from your doctor doesn’t help diagnose your complaint.

There are two tasks: (1) map the current process (or lack thereof), and (2) identify disconnects or those actions we do through habit yet can’t align to effectiveness. Define and map the current-state process.

Step 3: Invent a Better Future

By the time we’ve completed step two, we have a clear picture of current reality. Now our task is to invent a future process to satisfy the customer-driven objectives we specified in the first step. Experienced practitioners do the work. They follow clear and established process-design methods. New process design is aided by the suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers (SIPOC) model. You want to show project teams high-level snapshots of process information to focus attention on what matters most.

Here is the procedure:

  1. Identify key process activities
  2. Identify outputs of the process and the recipient (customer)
  3. Identify inputs to the process and likely suppliers

Step 4: Document It

Using the SIPOC models as a guide, document the new process. Documentation includes data collection, decision points, decision rights, and the forums for use.

Step 5: Make it Happen

Implementation means more than installing a new process. It requires integrating the new process into the DNA of the organization. We must win over hearts and minds to overcome inertia. Unrewarded talent is as common as a non-winning lottery ticket. No matter how brilliant the new process is, it must have advocates. Without enthusiastic support, even with a solid plan to drive the required change, the existing culture will prevail.

Pre-Automation Check

Is everything in place before we automate? Just like the preflight check aboard an aircraft, we must do our own completeness drill. We want to avoid the trap of confusing selection process with selection as an event. Some organizations make the mistake of rushing to automate before establishing a well-designed and repeatable process. We really can’t know the answer before we ask the question. Beware of rushing.

Make it Stick

We can design beautiful and effective processes. However, unless we integrate the process of process into our organizational decision making, we might as well not have bothered. Our goal here is to make process an organizational reflex. We want decision makers to think design process, not just reach for a finished design. On an individual level, when we learn a skill or adopt a new perspective, we can be said to have internalized a response to stimulus. For example, when we internalize a value such as quid pro quo in a business transaction, we don’t have to think continually about giving something to get something else. We expect that we will get to give and give to get. The concept no longer needs thinking about. In other words, we have internalized it and it becomes heuristic.

We can internalize organizational responses by exposure, education, and rational discussion. Once this becomes the way of interpreting a stimulus, it’s the norm. For some companies this is a commitment to customer service or product refinement. These are the internalized brand values. The importance of continual process design is an ongoing effort of communication until it becomes natural and obvious to everyone with a stake in PPM.

PPM processes can be communicated, understood, and deployed throughout an organization. Initial steps in the process can derive immediate value, create interest, and pave the way for early adoption and audience acceptance. An initial communication strategy is not unlike the effect of a trailer for a movie – a capability coming soon to you.

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Extract taken from Michael Menard’s book, A Fish in Your Ear, The New Discipline of Project Portfolio Management. Available on Amazon.

Lost Keys – In the absence of a holistic view of your entire portfolio of projects and lack of defined process, you rely on guesswork. Under pressure or through habit you revert to doing what you know how to do. Rationality goes out of the window.

A Thousand Cuts – Each decision inflicts pain. Often this pain goes unnoticed – for a while. But sooner or later, the consequences make themselves felt. Weak growth, dwindling profit, and a slow erosion of value make up make up the predictable declining trajectory. Failure to create profit rarely comes from one single cataclysmic disaster.

A Mouthful of Fish – For the puffin, choosing the biggest fish is an instinctive demonstration of efficiency, value, and execution. So how do we know which are the biggest fish for us?

My Moment of Truth – The event that changed my career happened on December 14, 1996, at precisely 6.30 a.m. I was commuting. The radio was on. I wasn’t paying attention until these words hit me like a sock to the jaw: do not go to your grave with your music still inside you. Then the idea burst into being.

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