Episode 147 – Managing Complexity – The Complex Project Toolkit

Episode #147
Original Air Date: 02.14.2022

34 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Kieran Duck

As project managers, we have a go-to toolset for managing standard projects, but what if our complex project doesn’t fit that toolset? How does the established project management approach fall short when managing complex projects? Our guest Kieran Duck wrote the book The Complex Project Toolkit that describes the use of design thinking to deliver your most challenging projects. Join us as Kieran describes a toolkit designed specifically for complex projects.

Kieran suggests that “The challenge with complex projects is that the standard project management toolkit is more at home coordinating resources on known problems.” He describes characteristics that set the complex project apart from one that is better described as complicated. And, Kieran explains why Agile is not the silver bullet for complex projects. Kieran compares the complex management model to the standard model in terms of mindsets, practices and skills. He offers advice to help leaders shift the mindset of the team. Other topics Kieran talks about include dealing with ambiguity, personal accountability, as well as his three categories of the Complex Project Toolkit Skills: Conversation, Sense-making, and Adaption.

Kieran is an advisor and coach to senior leaders running complex projects and transforming organizations. He has redesigned and rescued multibillion-dollar projects and led business transformations. Living in Australia, Kieran is a global presenter on using design thinking to drive step changes in project and business performance.

Learn More About Our Course: 17 Top Reasons Why Projects Fail And What You Can Do To Avoid Failure

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...in complexity, I go back to it’s all connected.  No one person knows the answer.  So pick a good one.  Create the context that works well for this team.  And if they’re having a horrible experience, change it. I really believe that these projects can injure people, won’t take your finger off, but it can really blow people up.  And so create the right context for doing well."

- Kieran Duck

"But Agile never questions are we building the right thing. It bounds the scope, and it improves what you’ve got within that scope. Well, in complexity, where you’ve got opinions, the answer might change, and Agile doesn’t cope with the ability to do that."

- Kieran Duck

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. How does the established project management approach fall short when managing complexity in projects? Kieran Duck wrote the book The Complex Project Toolkit that describes the use of design thinking to deliver your most challenging projects.

Table of Contents

02:35 … The Complex Project Toolkit Book
03:52 … Standard Project Management vs. Managing Complex Projects
06:38 … Complicated Versus Complex
07:19 … A Design-Driven Toolkit
08:58 … Is Agile Not For Complex Projects?
11:43 … Mindsets, Practices, and Skills
13:27 … “Why” Before “What” in a Complex Project
17:06 … Inspiring the Shift to a Complexity Mindset
20:42 … Individuals Hold Themselves Accountable
23:08 … Conversations
25:13 … Sense-Making
27:18 … Adaption
29:50 … Words of Advice
31:48 … Get in Touch with Kieran
33:24 … Closing

KIERAN DUCK: You know, in complexity, I go back to it’s all connected.  No one person knows the answer.  So pick a good one.  Create the context that works well for this team.  And if they’re having a horrible experience, change it. I really believe that these projects can injure people, won’t take your finger off, but it can really blow people up.  And so create the right context for doing well.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  This is our bimonthly program where we like to talk about what matters to professional project managers.  And it’s our goal to give you some words of advice and to give you encouragement, where you can hear from other professionals and leaders in the field.  We’re glad you’re joining us.  If you like what you hear, please visit us at Velociteach.com and leave us a comment on our website.

I am Wendy Grounds, and joining me in the studio is Bill Yates.  Our guest today is Kieran Duck.  Kieran is talking to us from Sydney.  He is an advisor and coach to senior leaders running complex projects and transforming organizations.  He has redesigned and rescued multibillion-dollar projects and led business transformations.  He’s also a global presenter on using design thinking to drive step changes in project and business performance.  He’s also recently authored a book called “The Complex Project Toolkit.”

BILL YATES:  Yes.  The subtitle was “Using Design Thinking to Transform the Delivery of Your Hardest Projects.”  This is really intriguing to me.  You know, right from the cover he had me hooked.  And Kieran says, okay, look, I’ve seen this over and over and over in my career.  Maybe you guys can relate.  We have a way of managing standard projects, and it works well if your project is standard.

But what if it’s complex?  What if there’s a level to this that just doesn’t fit that toolset?  And he gives the example of, you know, taking a hammer and trying to drive a screw into a board.  It’s ugly and doesn’t look very nice when you’re done with it.  So he makes the case for, okay, if you have a complex project, you need a different toolkit.  And then he describes the toolkit.  This is an intriguing conversation.  I think some people may even find it a little bit controversial.


BILL YATES:  Because they don’t want to give up their standard tools.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yes, yes.  And Kieran welcomes that.  If you do find anything you disagree with, you’re welcome to reach out to him.  He’d love to hear your opinions, as well.  Kieran, welcome to Manage This.  Thank you so much for being our guest.

KIERAN DUCK:  Thanks for inviting me.  Great to be here.

The Complex Project Toolkit Book

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, we’re excited to talk to you.  I have enjoyed your book.  It’s an excellent book for project managers.  Can you just give us a little bit of background, and what sparked the book?  How did you come about writing this?

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, that’s an interesting question.  I mean, over the years I’ve done a lot of work on project management, project rescues, business transformation.  And what I was doing wasn’t really described in project management books and models.  Much more of a focus on people, connecting people, understanding their motivations, taking time to rethink approaches.  So this isn’t really what you read about when you just hear about scoping and planning.

Then a few years ago I worked with a design firm.  And what that did, it opened up a different way of thinking.  And it put a name to what I was doing.  You know, the more I explored design thinking, the more it explained this different way of approaching projects.  So I hadn’t seen this brought to life anywhere.  And I remember sitting on a plane flying back from a conference one time going, I’ve really got to write this down.  I saw that this is something that some people do quite naturally, but it’s also something that could be taught.  So it was really that desire to write down what I’ve seen as really effective practice when it comes to complexity.

Standard Project Management vs. Managing Complex Projects

BILL YATES:  One of the things that I appreciate that you do right at the beginning of the book is you say this is not replacing project management as you may be practicing it today.


BILL YATES:  There are times when standard project management practices are perfectly appropriate.  For many, they would say throughout my lifetime or my career I can use standard project management methods and be successful.  However, there are certain projects that are just too complex.  That complexity meter gets dialed up.  And to your point, this book addresses those situations.  Talk to us a bit about that.  If you look at like standard project management approaches, how does that fall short when managing a complex project?

KIERAN DUCK:  I think it’s useful to make clear what that distinction is.  You know, I talk about complicated being technically difficult.  You need to find all the parts; but, you know, it’s bounded.  Whereas complex projects are what I’d call socially difficult.  There’s a great example in Australia of when we built a big hydroelectric scheme in the 1950s.  We brought in people from overseas.  It was working in a whole new alpine wilderness area.  It took 25 years to build, but it finished on time, on budget.  And the problem there was coordinating all these resources.  But it was bringing in expertise from overseas.

Now, interestingly, that finished in the 1970s.  By the 1990s, there were a whole bunch of environmental activists complaining about the fact that the dam had restricted flows downstream.  And so a campaign was started to restore the flows, at least some of the flows.  And it took until 2017 to do that.  You know, the point of that, it took 25 years to build this massive scheme of hundreds of kilometers of pipe, and it took 25 years to turn the flow back on.  So the first bit was complicated, but the second bit was complex.  And complex is about when you’ve got all these opinions involved and you, you know, there are five characteristics that I highlight.

One of them is this idea that things are subjective.  Depends on your opinion.  The same information gives a different result.  The situation is connected so no one person can see the answer.  There’s not one person you go to to explain the whole situation; where often in complicated there’s an expert.  There’s somebody who can guide you through it.  I also talk about them being unknowable.  You don’t know what the problem’s going to be until you get into it. 

And that’s what you see with that dam example is that things changed.  Politicians changed.  Everything kept changing on the way through.  So there’s no way to write a plan at the beginning and step all the way through it.  It was unique.  Nobody had done that before.  And it was constrained in that it was very high visibility, and lots of opinions involved.  And it really affects your degrees of freedom on a project when everybody’s playing in this game and adding their $.10 worth.

Complicated Versus Complex

BILL YATES:  That’s an excellent example.  The way you write about that in the book is perfect.  I think it lays out those characteristics and puts meat to it and helps you understand. 

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, yeah.  I mean, the other one I used in the book to really bring it back to a fairly simple version is complicated versus complex.  If you think about how many fire stations you might need in a city, that’s a route optimization.  It’s a complicated problem.  Working all that out is complicated.  But the complexity comes when you’re trying to close one of those fire stations and trying to get an agreement, and everybody gets involved.  So when we see complicated problems, standard project works.  But when you get to complexity, and you’ve got all these opinions, you need an enhanced toolkit for that.

A Design-Driven Toolkit

WENDY GROUNDS:  Kieran, I want to talk about “The Complex Project Toolkit,” the book that you just published.  And you introduce the toolkit as a design-driven toolkit.  What do you mean by “design-driven”?

KIERAN DUCK:  So for me, design thinking is a particular way of seeing the world.  The heart of it, it’s bringing people into consideration.  I make the argument that the standard project management comes from a scientific background.  It’s about modeling the future.  It’s about controlling and proving.  It has all these elements of science to it that came out of scientific management.  Within that, you’ve got to realize that the root of science is actually removing the individual.  Beginning in “Scientific Revolution” talked about removing the flawed experience of humans for science to be able to have something that’s provable, repeatable, and you understand the world by pulling it apart.

Design thinking comes from a different place.  It comes from its belief that people are at the center, and it’s much more about being able to respond to the environment.  It’s much more generative.  It draws in opinions.  But in doing that you start to lose some of that certainty, if you like, because there is variability. 

So if we have these complex situations where people have opinions, and there’s all these different ideas flying around, to really take those on you need to give up on that belief in certainty and control from a standard approach.  And you have to move more to a way of operating that draws people in, gives them time to think, gathers those ideas together, but still finds a way to get it done.  We can’t just all sit around on cushions and have a chat.  This is a project.  We’ve got to get it done.

Is Agile Not For Complex Projects?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Some may say for complex projects Agile is the answer.  We’ve heard that said many times.


WENDY GROUNDS:  And you disagree.  So why is Agile not the silver bullet for complex projects?

KIERAN DUCK:  I’ve got a computer science background.  I know the value of Agile.  And in the right situation it works quite well.  But fundamentally it’s a build method.  It is about iterating towards an answer.  But Agile never questions are we building the right thing.  It bounds the scope, and it improves what you’ve got within that scope.  Well, in complexity, where you’ve got opinions, the answer might change, and Agile doesn’t cope with the ability to do that.  It also uses the deliverable to confirm the requirements, lock it in, and move on.  And you can never back the bus up.  It’s always going forward.

So in complexities you learn more about the situation.  You just can’t sort of move back from what you’ve done.  And you certainly can’t wholesale change direction.  It’s very hard to throw things out and move to a different place.  And in complexity that often happens.  I’m thinking there for example union negotiations, or any sort of employee negotiations.  You find that what you thought was locked in gets changed later because of the fact that you now have found some different trade-offs.  So those complex environments, this idea of Agile giving you a sense of lock it in and move on, doesn’t work as well, but certainly works brilliantly in the right environment.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  It’s funny, as you started to build your case for a standard project management set versus a different toolset when you have an environment of complexity, I had bated breath.  I was like, I can’t wait until he tackles Agile because I know Agile practitioners, and they say, oh, we can fix this.  But I agree, and the points that you built out in the book are spot on.  I mean, you think about the basics of the Agile approach is still you need to have that product owner saying this is the roadmap, the big picture.  So this is what our solution’s going to look like.

To your point, they want to have a deliverable.  They have a big deliverable called the roadmap, and then they break it down in that product backlog.  That product backlog, those are deliverables that are needed.  So you’re right, they’re locking in the scope.  They could argue, but it’s for a short amount of time, yes.  But just by committing to that scope, it kind of defeats the purpose of this approach to complex projects.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah.  And it absolutely is about – it’s equally confirmation of requirement.  Is this what you want?  Yes, this is what you want.  But it does focus on the what.


KIERAN DUCK:  Rather than the why.  What have we got to build here?  Never made it into the book, but I went through the 12 elements of Agile.

BILL YATES:  Yes, the 12 principles.

KIERAN DUCK:  And I went – right.  So I completely agree with I think four of them.


KIERAN DUCK:  And I had a slightly different view on the other eight.  So it’s not completely disagree.

Mindsets, Practices, and Skills

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah. One of the tables that I thought was especially illustrative, on page 95 you have a table that just talks about the standard toolkit, and then the toolkit for a complex project.  And you talk about mindsets, practices, and skills.  And as I was reading through your explanation of these three, I was thinking, I can’t wait to ask Kieran, how did you distill it to this?  Did you wake up in the middle of the night and kind of have an aha moment and go, you know what, this really falls into these three categories?  How did you come up with these three?

KIERAN DUCK:  Mindsets, practices, and skills?


KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, that was probably one of the harder processes of the book, with lots of scribbled pages, thinking about behaviors, techniques, heuristics.  There’s a whole bunch.  And it was more a lot of reflection.  In fact, in the book I talk about one of the practices about holding space and giving yourself time to think.  A lot of scribbled pages.  But what I got back to was I looked at behaviors.  For me mindsets are things that you can identify and work on, the drive.  I think Carol Dweck has the book “Mindsets” which talks about how to move to a different way of thinking by shifting the mindset.

Now, in fact, the first publisher I spoke to said just do it about mindsets.  But it doesn’t move us forward enough.  That’s great, but we also need practices.  And then I ended up with, okay, but what do I need to learn?  And that led me to the skill sets, and that’s why it’s sort of divided into those.  When I first talked to people about this, I was just talking about the new way of doing things.  And it was almost disrespecting the current way.  So I said, well, this from-to, I think, gives a better sense of what’s different, rather than just saying, hey, here’s a whole new world to go to.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I agree.

“Why” Before “What” in a Complex Project

WENDY GROUNDS:  We recently did a podcast where we talked with Doreen Linneman on finding your why.  And as project managers, we tend to focus a lot on what needs to be delivered, instead of really thinking about the intent.


WENDY GROUNDS:  So can you talk a little bit, why it’s so necessary to get that “why” before the “what” in a complex project.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah.  Also I can tell you we love “Just tell me what I need to do.  What do I need to do to pass the exam?”  It helps me keep my job if you said you needed X, and I gave you X.  That actually is a way some people simplify complexity is just tell me what I need to do.  Tell me what I need to deliver, and I can tick that I delivered it.  You know, it reduces complexity.  It makes some people’s life easier.  But the problem in complexity like we’ve talked about is we don’t always know what when we start.  And so anchoring on why you’re doing this has three real benefits.

The first, it always drives you to a bigger view.  The customers, the stakeholders, the staff, the community, why are we doing this gives you this broader view of the world.  The second point is that complexity is hard.  And there’ll always be a point of is this too hard.  And I find having real clarity on why keeps you moving forward through the storms and the dark hours.  There’s a great line somebody once told me is when going through hell, don’t stop.  And the why draws you forward.  It draws you through those hard times.  And also, if you focus on what, you’ll get these problems that occur, whether it’s an argument with the team or painful customer or whatever, and you’ll just be able to ignore that and get on with delivering what you said you needed to deliver.

Why lets you address the bigger issues, lets you stand back and make sure you’re dealing with that systemically.  You can think of the number of times in projects where, and it’s normally about three months in, all the energy’s gone out of it, and people are starting to complain, and there’s differences of opinions.  And I’ve seen people just put their head down and just work the plan, just step through what you asked me to do.  And it’s going to end poorly when you do that.  You’ve got to be able to step back to be able to change direction if you need to because you’re really clear on why you’re doing it, not just what you’re creating.

BILL YATES:  Those are such powerful points.  Some of the conversations that we’ve had with project managers who they’re working on critical projects.  I think about some of the COVID breakthroughs, specifically the antibody research that Dr. James Crowe and his team did.  And again, they had a huge driver.  The why behind my project effort will keep me going, even when I don’t see clearly how we’re going to get there or even what it looks like.  But I know the purpose is there.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, yeah.  Yeah, yeah.  And absolutely, purpose is really important.  I talk about the Tara Swart who did this research on journalists.  And they work really bad hours, you know, they just don’t get enough exercise, don’t get enough sleep, eat really poor food.  Yet their health is pretty good.


KIERAN DUCK:  Because they’re drawn forward by the purpose of what they do.  I worked on a train project where everybody was trying to sort out all the details with braking system, and it was taking ages, and we basically said, “Why are we doing this?”  Because when this is done, people will be traveling in safer trains.  That’s the urgency here.  They’re safer.  They’re more comfortable.  And they’re more energy efficient.  This is why we’re doing it.  And when you see that, you don’t argue so much as to the color of the blue light here or the size of that, that lamp.  You see the need to move.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  Right.

Inspiring the Shift to a Complexity Mindset

WENDY GROUNDS:  In your book you compare and contrast the standard mindset versus the complexity mindset, basically how the change in mindsets can prove difficult for some people.  So as a leader, as a project leader, how can you help your team to make this shift, if they’re working now on a more complex type of project?

KIERAN DUCK:  There’s a couple of things on that.  Taking on a different mindset, you need to be both aware of its value and have a willingness to change.  But as the leader you’ve got to help that shift.  You’ve got to show it’s okay to get things wrong.  You know, a lot of what I talk about is move from predictability and control more to one of learning and understanding.  And again, there’s comfort in control.  There’s comfort in predictability.  You’ve got to give up that comfort.

And it’s okay to get things wrong.  It’s okay to not know.  I mean, one of the mindsets I talk about is give up knowing.  A lot of people come back to that because, you know, we can’t really learn, can’t really listen unless we give up being an expert.  And an example that I had was when I was a transformation director, and I saw that everybody was really worried about their plans.  And everything was coming in 5% under budget.  I’m like, well, what’s going on here?  And there was a story there, a history there of people getting fired for getting their budgets wrong.

So I said, right, we’ve got to break that down.  Variations are good.  Variations tell me that you’re learning, that you’re changing.  I had to actively promote the idea of you’re allowed to vary your project, and show that that was a good thing, and encourage people to do it, and congratulate people that did.  So that shift has to be really diverse and obvious and talked about.  But it did take me a while to understand why they weren’t moving.  You’ve got to understand what stands in their way, and then you have to really actively support that shift to a new way of thinking.

Actually, when it does come to complexity there’s – I’ve really seen there’s four types of people.  You know, when it comes to ambiguity and being worried about it, the simplest level, those who just, you know, what I call level one, just don’t see it, just go on with their lives and are comfortable.  Level two are those who see the complexity and are bothered by it and really can’t deal with it.  And for those you’ve got to put a bit of framing around it.

The third level of people who see complexity, but say I’m okay with it, which still sees complexity as a bad thing, but they’re coping.  And then you’ve got to be careful of those because they’re more likely to almost get burnt out by it because they’re saying it’s bad, but I’m doing it okay.  And then the fourth one, and I’m seeing more of it, is people who just go, well, there’s ambiguity, and it just is.  It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.  And ideally in that situation at that fourth level you’re able to not be constrained by the complexity, or it doesn’t force you around all over the place.  Although sometimes I do wonder if it’s better to be level four or level one and just be oblivious.  Sometimes that’d be nice.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  Kieran, I’m so glad you brought that up. From a leadership perspective, this is great content because in some cases it’s like, okay, I can embrace this and understand it myself.  But how do I bring other people along?  I think for a leader to take that approach of, okay, there are four types of people.  If I can recognize that and kind of analyze that in my team, then I can raise their awareness, and I can also group them and coach them.  How do I get from level three to level four?  Let’s talk about that.  Level four people, have coffee with level three people and discuss.  Yup.

Individuals Hold Themselves Accountable

WENDY GROUNDS:  So there’s a quote that I liked:  “In complexity, certainty of delivery comes from clarity of ownership and consequence, not clarity of plan.”  And you make points about ownership and that you can’t hold people accountable.  Individuals can only hold themselves accountable.  I really like that.  Can you just explain a little more what you mean by that?

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah.  I do have a story where this one came from.  It was quite a few years ago, working through a transformation, working with a manager.  He had 500 staff.  And he was told he needed to reduce his headcount by 20%.  He didn’t believe it was possible.  He didn’t think it was right.  And six months into the program was actually when I turned up.  And there were still 500 people there.  He hadn’t moved it at all.

And so our consultant said to me, “We have to redo the plan, we’ve got to put in more aggressive targets, and we’ve got to hold him accountable.”  And I said to him, “Well, what’s that going to do?  So what’s going to happen?”  So he’ll redo the plan over the next month.  And then for six months again you’ll see no progress.  So then what do you do?  Well, you put him on short-term objectives.  And then he still doesn’t move.  So a year later, you’ll fire him.  And then you’ll go out and start the search.  It’s a pretty senior job, will take you three months to find somebody.  And then they’ll take a bit of time to get up to speed.

So you’ll go 18 months, 12 to 18 months before you see any movement on this.  The plan isn’t the problem.  So what I did was sit with him, understood who he was, why he didn’t believe, he couldn’t reduce.  It was a safety critical role.  He saw it was absolutely imperative.  It was a threat to safety to make this change.  But we spent that time, three or four weeks, really discussing a different future, coming up with a different model.  And he bought into that fact.  And so six months later he had managed to shift that team further than 20% because he believed in it, and that’s really at the heart of this.  Doesn’t matter what the plan said if he doesn’t own it.  And what does accountability mean these days?

That’s why you’ve got to really have people believe in this because I can’t explain Step 1 to Step 23 of this process, because it’s going to emerge.  People need to own what’s going to happen.  And, you know, how do I also, how do hold him accountable?  I mean, the classic thing is the plan that’s on your red/amber/green goes to red because of some external factor.  So how do I hold him accountable to a plan that was affected by something else?  Again, it just doesn’t work in complexity.  And it gets back to the why and the purpose of this to own it.


BILL YATES:  Kieran, to me Chapter 8 was like, it was just a box full of goodies.  You had so many different steps that you can use, processes, tools.  Some of them were new to me.  Some were familiar.  Bringing it up in the context of managing a complex project was to me just – it made a lot of sense.  Can you walk us through the three categories that you talk about in terms of those skills, and maybe contrast them to standard project management?  Those were conversations, sense-making, and adaption.

KIERAN DUCK:  These come clearly out of the design toolkit, particularly conversations, sense-making.  And I juxtapose it to, for me, back to you trying to understand people.  And it’s not often we talk about communication projects.  But that seems to be tell.  It’s this outbound, we’re going to let them know what we’re doing.  We’re not really engaging in conversation.  Of course, if you do engage in conversation, things might change.  Your plan might be busted by what you hear.  So real conversation is hard, or virtually impossible, if you’re trying to hold to a plan, and you need to have that ability to move.

But anyway, when I talk about conversation, there are four things:  being able to ask good questions, which is a lot harder than you think.  And if you ask a good question, the second thing is listen.  The simple thing for me is, if you want to shift your listening, think about listening for their brilliance.  What’s great about this person?  What is it that they’re saying?  Rather than listening for a yeah, but.


KIERAN DUCK:  Or I’m going to wait till they take a breath because I’ve got something.  Listening well is really important.  The third classic design thing is just drawing for clarity.  You think about the number of times when you’ve got something complex, draw it on a board.  A little bit hard to do remotely, but that ability to draw, everybody starts pointing at the object on the board rather than individually.  It externalizes ideas.  And the fourth thing about conversation is sharing stories.  I gave the story of the hydroelectric system.  And that you can see so much more than just whatever the hundred words or so that I told about that.  So stories are really quite important for understanding.  So that’s conversation.  It really is at the heart of bringing people into the project.


So the next thing then, if you’ve got all these great ideas, how do I make sense of it?  And I juxtapose the idea of sense-making versus planning and scheduling.  Now, planning is about getting organized.  But we know no plan survives first contact with reality, to adjust the military metaphor.  Sense-making is important because the world evolves.  And because you’ve got now 15 different opinions, if you’re genuinely going to take them on, you need to be able to do something with that.  So in sense-making, you need to be willing to explore and discover beyond the boundaries of what you have, to be able to understand the significance of what you’re seeing.

I talk about you’ve got to make to break.  Designers talk about the need to make to learn.  You make to learn.  And when you learn, you make something new.  And that cycle I adjusted that to say we often do prototypes to prove that we’re right.  You know, I’m putting this out there to see how it works and show that I was smart.  As opposed to going, I’m putting it out there to find out how it will go wrong.  Did this with an airline, with their boarding process when they redesigned it.  We ran a prototype, and the prototype wasn’t proved that it would work.  I wanted the staff that we’d engaged to do it, to find a way to break it.


KIERAN DUCK:  And they will because if you want something that works with agreeable actors who’ll do what you want them to, boarding an aircraft is not one of those processes.  So we were looking for just break that.  The next thing is about then reframing it.  You’ve got to be able to bring different frames each for the situation.  And you think of building an IT system, you can often talk about the house metaphor, you know, what’s the architecture, what’s the plumbing which is, you know, the systems, what are the rooms.  You can use metaphors to help people build a bigger picture, and it’s part of that story process.  And then the last one in sense-making, you’ve got to take all these great ideas, you’ve got to synthesize them down into that killer slide, the one key idea.


KIERAN DUCK:  That thing that sort of gets everybody going, yes, I know exactly what we’re doing.  It won’t have detail, but you need to be able to have something that people can anchor on.  We can’t just give them a bit of a cloud to head towards.  You need an idea.


KIERAN DUCK: And then the last of the three, so we talked about conversation, sense-making, and adaption, which I think a lot of project managers start to see some of the normal practices in here. The first one is about phantom response.  You can’t just set a plan and believe in the plan.  You’ve got to be able to respond to a situation. 

And you’ve got to be willing to rethink the approach as the world changes.  Don’t hold to that plan and just watch everything go red.  Pick the thing up and move it.  And the leadership have to be willing to allow that shift.  That’s a big part of it, as well.  You need to be able to coordinate action, and that’s a leadership question because the plan is a way of coordinating action.  In complexity, I think a plan becomes a thinking tool.  I’m not saying don’t plan.  I’m saying build a plan because it externalizes your thinking.  But don’t use that to necessarily coordinate action.  Lead people.  Give them the why.  Focus on ownership.

And then the final piece, and this is around adapting the whole situation, I talk about creating the context.  You know, we’re not dealing with scientific constants here that we can’t break.  This is a social system.  We get to decide how it’s set up in a project.  There is no sort of gravitational constant here that we’re dealing with.  And so that’s a double-edged sword.  It means that if it isn’t working for you, change it.  You know, in complexity, I go back to it’s all connected.  No one person knows the answer.  So pick a good one.  Create the context that works well for this team.  And if they’re having a horrible experience, change it. I really believe that these projects can injure people,  won’t take your finger off, but it can really blow  people up.  And so create the right context for doing well.

BILL YATES:  I saw your reference to six thinking hats, to how to ask appropriate questions, you know, the six types of questions to drive somebody deeper.  That’s so practical.  Those are great reminders to project managers, even if you say, well, my project’s not that complex.  Take a look at these tools.  These are incredibly helpful if you’re trying to engage your key decision-makers and your team.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah.  And the thing that also, when I stepped back and looked at it, I went, this isn’t a normal list for a project management course.  Being really good at listening.  Hang on, I’m a project manager.  Follow the plan.  You know?

BILL YATES:  Yes, right.

KIERAN DUCK:  Okay, yeah, I listen, I listen.  All right, so what’s next?  Yeah.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, right.  I listen for silence, and then I fill it, yes.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, absolutely.  That’s actually a skill I don’t think I really talked about, that willingness to just sit and be.  I talk about holding space.  But that willingness to sit with silence and let whatever is going to emerge, emerge, it really is one of the many skills that you need.

Words of Advice

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s excellent, Kieran.  With the experience that you have gained, if you could look back and tell your younger project manager some good advice, what would you say to yourself?

KIERAN DUCK:  I’d tell myself where to invest.  Pick a couple of Super Bowl winners or something like that.  No, I think the main thing is, you know, in project management you do have to learn the basics.  I talk about this being enhanced beyond the standard toolkit.  I think you do need to understand the topic.  You do need to understand why we have a scope, why we have a plan, how we manage risks – although we don’t really manage them, we tend to just document them and watch them occur.  But you need to understand the basics.  Otherwise you’ll be this lone nut standing in the corner, and nobody will listen to you.

But don’t stop there.  You know, be curious.  Always look for better ways.  Always look for learning.  And fundamentally make sure that what you’re doing matches the situation that you’re in.  I talk about, you know, trying to drive in a screw, and all I’ve got’s a hammer.  And I’ll smack that screw, and it will go into the wood.  It’ll make a bit of a mess, and it’ll look like it’s done.  But you know it hasn’t solved the problem.  So keep an eye out for the full toolkit, the other screwdrivers.  The broader capability I think is the important thing.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  That metaphor really hits home with me.  I can think of past projects that I was a part of where I forced something.  And yeah, we got it done at the end of the day.  But oh, man, it was ugly, and we probably had some bloody thumbs and some bruised relationships that we had to go mend afterwards because kind of a stubbornness.  I didn’t create that space and let plans emerge.  I tended to try to focus and use my standard approach to drive something home. 

KIERAN DUCK:  Right.  I’ve seen a number of projects where all you’re trying to do is get to a point where you can declare victory and move on.


KIERAN DUCK:  And you just want to get out of the room.  You want to be able to say, you know, all those late nights weren’t for naught.  There was something in this.  Now can I go home.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Can we say we’re done, yes.

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah.  Yeah, yeah.

Get in Touch with Kieran

WENDY GROUNDS:  Kieran, how can our listeners reach out if they want to chat some more?

KIERAN DUCK:  The best way is probably, yeah, yeah, the best way is probably drop a note on LinkedIn.  That’s the simplest way.  Major Street Publishing is the company that published the book. You could contact me through them, if needs be.  But like I said, I think LinkedIn is the simplest path.  But happy to talk to anyone about this.  You know, particularly those who disagree.  I’m really interested to talk to people who see bits of it and say, yeah, I don’t think so.  There’s more learning in that for me, rather than just looking for more of the same.

BILL YATES:  Very good.

KIERAN DUCK:  Love to poke and prod.  Make to break.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.  That’s right.  Kieran, I meant to ask this of you right from the start.  Where are you located now, if somebody were wondering, who is this guy?  Where does he live?

KIERAN DUCK:  Yeah, yeah.  No, I’m based in Sydney, but often on the phone to all parts of the world at the moment.  That makes it a lot easier.  We love to travel when we can.  But Sydney born and bred.  Worked in different places around the world.  In Atlanta for a while, New York, couple other places.

BILL YATES:  Well, thank you so much.  This book really got my brain going.  And the whole concept of bringing design thinking into project management is just a terrific idea.  And you make a very clear distinction, again, between standard project management processes and where they could fail us, or we might be failing our team and our sponsors if we rely on those in the situation where we’re really dealing with complexity.  So well done with this.  Thank you for really promoting and taking forward the notion of project management to another level through these concepts in your book.  Great contribution.

KIERAN DUCK:  Thank you so much.  Glad you liked it.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com where you can subscribe to this podcast, see a transcript of the show, or to contact us if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.  You have also just earned some professional development units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

One response to “Episode 147 – Managing Complexity – The Complex Project Toolkit”

  1. Tammi B says:

    Great podcast.. Thanks!

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