Chaos and Complexity #6: A Checklist that works!

by Gary Monti on October 19, 2010

Let’s put the theory covered so far in this series to work. Good leaders ask the right questions and listen to others for the answers. When dropped into a new situation one of the first, best questions to ask is, “Is the situation complex and, if so, what degree of complexity is present?” This sounds good but it can run into problems very quickly. One of the most common ones is the fact people are feeling the urge to focus and get to work. This can be a waste of time if the right frame-of-mind is lacking for determining what tasks need to be accomplished and how resources should be allocated. This was brought home in a previous blog dealing with the need to decide when to push on versus regroup.

Below is a checklist that helps facilitate a qualitative assessment of the level of complexity. It is in everyday language to facilitate use by a broad range of stakeholders and team members. In other words, it stays away from jargon, which can be the kiss of death when requesting information from people.

The Checklist

  1. Not sure how the project will get done;
  2. Many stakeholders, teams and sub-teams;
  3. Many vendors;
  4. New vendors;
  5. New client;
  6. Team members are geographically dispersed;
  7. End-users are geographically dispersed;
  8. Many organizations;
  9. Many cultures (professional, organizational, sociological);
  10. Many languages (professional, organizational, sociological);
  11. High risk;
  12. Lack of quality best characterized by lack of acceptance criteria;
  13. Lack of clear requirements;
  14. Many tasks;
  15. Arbitrary budget;
  16. Arbitrary end date;
  17. Inadequate resources;
  18. Leading-edge technology;
  19. New, unproven application of existing technology;
  20. High degree of interconnectedness (professional, technological, political, sociological).

But, If That Were True Then…

One of the most common responses when giving someone this list is, “If this list is accurate it would mean all my projects are complex!” It’s usually said with some astonishment and a degree of wonder as to whether or not it is overblown.

This brings us back to the blog on managing expectations. It is extremely important to establish the right expectations as to how much regrouping versus pushing forward is required in order to get to a realistic baseline that is executable.

Everything Is Simple

The real power of this checklist is based on the following:

  • It is principle-based with each question reflecting key categories that, if addressed correctly, will reduce complexity and lead to a stable deliverable;
  • It is simple. The list is designed to fit on one side of an 8.5 x 11.0” sheet of paper. It fits in your pocket. It is also simple in the sense the 20 items listed are interconnected. An amplification of effort can be achieved by addressing one area and seeing its positive impact on the others, e.g., requirements;
  • It helps re-orient when the confusion caused by greed, fear, ignorance, or indifference is present and obfuscates the conversation. Having this list gets the conversation back on track;
  • It is obvious. This might be the most important point. There is no special education or jargon required. Which reminds me of a quote from Einstein. He was asked, “When do you know you understand relativity?” His answer, “When you can explain it to the waitress at the diner.” This list taps into the reality that we all experience.

The thing to keep in mind is everything is simple when viewed from the correct perspective. If there is failure to address the checklist then the project will be complex. Period. If the items are addressed then things will get as simple as they can be under the circumstances and within the limits of the situation.

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