5-Steps for project managers planning complex projects

April 28, 2021

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There are big projects, long projects, and complex projects. If you find yourself managing a complex project it’s likely long in duration, involving multiple teams, across varied delivery timelines. You will need agile planning for success. The following is a basic 5-step breakdown or checklist of things you may want to consider heading into managing a new complex project.

Step 1 – Plan the project

The first stage of a project’s life is planning, and it comes with a series of questions you should be asking prior to take-off. These are questions that can spare you a lot of pain, and sometimes avoid building solutions in vain…

  • Does this project really need to be produced?
  • Are there better or easier solutions that already exist?
  • Who wants this project completed? Is there are market fit for the output?
  • Who are the stakeholders? What roles and influence will they have?
  • What resources do you have to complete this project? Sweat equity, materials, tools, networks, 3rd party support?
  • Are there regulations or approvals that would prevent you from completing your project?
  • What is the available budget for this project?
  • What are the time restrictions involved with this project?


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Step 2 – Plan the project work

Well, if you have the time, budget, and market fit, your project may be approved and takes on the next step, planning the actual work. If you are a smaller project with fewer stakeholders you may find Planning the Project and Planning Project Work can run together a bit.

Regardless, this step requires that you produce a Project Brief. This is a document that will be directly referred to by your project team in completing your plan. Briefs must include your project / product strategy, target market, a priority of what needs to be done, and the necessary tech specs that may be critical to the output.

This is a step that should come with a comprehensive team meeting, delivering the brief, ensuring all stakeholders understand, and addressing any concerns.

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Step 3 – Do the project work

This is the most obvious, but most critical, of the steps. It’s where your planned rubber hits the execution road. Ultimately, you are working toward delivering what you intended on time and within budget. There are a number of project management approaches to completing complex team projects. Some lend to certain situations better than others. If you are involved in technology builds you will likely employ an agile methodology.

In the simplest of terms, an agile approach likely breaks your project into production Sprints with daily check-ins and updates on production status. Agile places a great value on consistent and high-fidelity communication, along with the confidence to adjust plans to new data, and running constant feedback loops with the end user, and the on-going testing for quality assurance.

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Step 4 – Project hand-off

This can be an easy step to leave incomplete. It’s exciting, you’re done all the hard work and you’re eager to share it with the client or product owner. However, this is where diligence will pay off by simply reviewing some key points on delivery:

  • Are all deliverables outlined in the project brief present in the final output?
  • Are there any outstanding small details that remain to be changed? Verbiage, colours, code adjustments?
  • A personal hand-off to a Product Owner is ideal giving you the ability to proactively run the client through the completed brief, confirming all deliverables have been met.

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Step 5 – Project post-mortem

If you are an agile management person you likely produced this project in Sprints. And following Sprints there is often a review meeting by the entire team for the Sprint, and respectively the entire project at the end.

Team leads need to ask the team the following questions:

  • What went well?
  • What did not go well?
  • How would you do, as a project production member, to improve our process, internally?
  • How could we do as a project leaders to improve success for project team members?
  • Would you like to do another similar project, why for or not?

These closing questions are important for PMs who are looking to improve their efforts in planning projects for others. Providing an environment for healthy feedback builds trust and buy-in from those team members while giving you a better perspective on how your team can be most effective in the execution of certain tasks or deliverables.