December 05, 2022

Getting things done: managing complex projects in Jira

Portfolio-level Management Project Management
Agnieszka Sienkiewicz

Managing complex projects can be an overwhelming experience. But instead of seeing it as a challenge, you might consider it an opportunity to grow professionally. With a bit of patience, proper planning, and the right tools, you can bring order to chaos and showcase your managerial skills.

Today, we would like to share a few tips for managing complex projects with modern PPM software. You will learn about common factors that introduce complexity to projects and how you can use BigPicture for Jira to manage them.

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What is a complex project?

In essence, a complex project involves multiple interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated parts. Those parts can be ambiguous or uncertain (risky), making the entire project unpredictable and, as such—challenging to control and manage. In complex projects, it can also be difficult to understand the behavior of each of those individual parts and predict how the entire product or service would behave based on knowledge about the initial conditions. 

Complexity could also be the very property of a project that makes describing its overall behavior difficult. In other words, it might be hard to explain what the product or service does using natural language. This definition applies even when there is complete and reasonable information about the project’s components and their interrelations. But it also largely depends on how well the speaker describes the product/service and how knowledgeable the recipient is.

Moreover, some projects may be complex because they consist of several smaller projects running under one umbrella objective.

As you can see, there is no single definition that would capture the true nature of project complexity. However, despite the lack of consensus on this matter, you should not mistake a complex project for a difficult one. Some projects might be difficult to manage due to, for example, a distributed project team. But working with remote employees or on a very tight budget does not necessarily make the project complex.

Project complexity factors to be aware of when managing complex projects

Interrelationships between the project’s components can be far more complex than the traditional work breakdown structure could suggest. And it is not only about the project’s tasks relating to each other. For instance, large projects consisting of hundreds of tasks impact resources that, in turn, affect the budget. And since every component can contribute to or increase project complexity, it is tremendously crucial for project managers to identify the factors that cause those (inter)relations. 

However, please keep in mind that managing complex projects is a unique experience. It means no standard set of factors may affect your project’s complexity level. Neither is there a single effective solution for them. Below you will find a list of the most typical complexity factors (or dimensions) that impact project complexity, along with potential solutions you can try as a Jira user.

Dependencies and interdependencies

This factor defines relationships between the components that make up the project. The project dependencies cause project components to depend on one another. On the other hand, interdependency defines which of two elements mutually depend on each other. While you can anticipate and map specific (inter)dependencies in your project ahead, you might not always know what will result from an interaction between the two components.

Handling task (inter)dependencies

BigPicture for Jira allows you to create meaningful dependencies between tasks and cross-project elements. If your project partially relates to an element (e.g., a task or milestone) from another initiative, you can build a meaningful connection between them by strong-linking them together.

Unlike Jira Issue Links, strong dependency links impact the dependent elements and, thereby, the project schedule. They will ensure that one element does not start or end until the other ends or starts. It also means that if you, for example, reschedule one element, the app will automatically re-schedule the other. With cross-project dependencies, you can connect two tasks and one initiative to another.

Strong and Soft dependency links on a Kanban board. Depending on the links’ health, the app will color them green, orange, or red.

You can build as many dependencies as your complex project requires. Both the
Gantt chart and Agile Kanban board support dependencies. So no matter whether you manage complex projects in (Scaled)Agile, Classic, or Hybrid environment, you can easily mark the interrelations and track them.

Dependency features and reports

The user-friendly features will help you wrap your head around all the spaghetti links. Complex projects are often large, and visually following dozens or hundreds of links can be confusing. You can turn them off for better clarity and follow only the necessary elements and relations.

When you need a holistic overview of all the dependencies in your project for yourself or to present to your stakeholders, you can generate the Dependencies report. This report sums up all the existing dependencies across your project, excluding the parent-child links.

Dependency report. The numbers and colors inside the matrix indicate the volume of dependency links present in the project.

And suppose the cross-team interdependencies are also the source of complexity in your project. In that case, the
cross-team dependencies report will help you coordinate project areas at the intersection of two projects and coordinate teams’ efforts better.

Simulating the consequences of changes

What about the situation when something in the project changes that could lead to a domino effect in your task interrelationships? If, for example, an assignee or the Original Estimate of a task changes, you can create several what-if scenarios to test out potential outcomes for your solutions. Then, pick the one you believe will cause the least negative impact. With what-if scenarios, you can test your project’s moving parts in a safe (and private) environment.

Goals and objectives

Behind every user story, phase, Iteration, or Sprint, there is a “why”—a goal or objective. The same goes for the entire project. If you and your team are unclear about the “why” for your project, then navigating the meanders of a complex project will become a struggle. Therefore, you must ensure the goals and objectives are properly defined at a strategic and operational level. In addition, all project stakeholders, including customers, team members, managers, contractors, and consultants, must understand those goals and objectives.

Setting clear goals and objectives

If you manage your complex (and possibly very large) project using the Gantt chart, then you can utilize Jira and BigPicture’s features to set your goals and objectives in several ways. And, what is also important, keep them visible. For instance, a simple element such as a basic task or a milestone can become a note in your WBS structure, reminding everyone about all the small and big goals.

A basic task showing the iteration goal on the work breakdown structure. You can customize the color for each WBS element for more clarity and visibility.

If you manage an Agile or Hybrid complex project, you can define and
set a goal for each Sprint (or Iteration). The visual elements, such as the percentage progress bar, will help you track the goal’s progress across your project teams directly on the board.

Stakeholders and communication

Complexity can come from having many stakeholders involved in the project. Depending on your initiative, you might need to liaise and communicate with customers, higher management, suppliers, or even other teams within your organization. 

It might also happen that your project stakeholders have different (and even conflicting) interests. In such a situation, communication with them could become a real challenge. But no matter who your stakeholders are and what they want from the project, you should keep them all in the loop.

So the bottom line is that no app will not help you resolve conflicts or balance the power among the stakeholders. But it can help you keep them on the same page about the project’s progress, goals, and overall status. After all, the lack of clear goals can result in various assumptions by your individual stakeholders, which might impact the entire project’s performance.

Collaborating with team members

Your team members are your stakeholders too. That is why you want to ensure they understand their objectives and goals; know which tasks you have assigned, and see their work progress. Collaboration and communication with your closest stakeholders allow you to align your world with theirs and, together, overcome the obstacles. After all, when your people know what you expect from them and what they can expect from each other, and they collaborate to align their work, it becomes far easier to overcome complexities in a project.

Custom views

Since you and your team(s) will be working on the same project, you might notice that the project data you want to track is not necessarily what your team members need. For example, you might want to track time or project progress, while your resources only need to see the task statuses and assignees.

Create custom views on your Gantt chart and switch between them with ease.

With BigPicture, it is not a problem. You and your teams can create
custom views and switch between them whenever they need. Simply add columns (based on Jira and BigPicture fields) you want to see, save your view, and let your team do the same.

Role-based access

Some stakeholders, no matter their power level, are more interested in a project than others. Naturally, they, too, may want to monitor the initiative you manage. But to protect yourself and your team from unintended changes those stakeholders could make, you can limit their privileges to your project. This way, they can follow your actions and look up whatever they need without leaving any harmful footprint.

Security setting page. Here, an admin can manage roles and permissions for individual users or groups.
View export and share

Another way to keep them updated is to share a link to your project view. So if your external stakeholders have Jira installed, they can open the link and look at your Gantt chart or Agile board, for instance. If your external stakeholders do not have access to Jira, you can export a view to another file (e.g., .pdf or .xml) and send it to them.

Share view feature on a Kanban board.

In addition to sharing views for a specific project aspect, you can build a robust reporting dashboard. You have over a dozen different reports to choose from, ranging from Velocity reports through Dependencies and Plan delays. You can customize each available report, move and resize, and even add the same report a few times but show results for different data.

The Reports dashboard in BigPicture consists of default and custom reports.

Resources and division of labor

Selecting and allocating resources to their individual tasks, coordinating the execution of those tasks, and the level of pressure you (or other stakeholders) put on your people to achieve project objectives are all factors that can increase project complexity. When managing complex projects, in particular, you will often face a shortage of specialized labor or the need to share them with other projects.

Determining what skills you need for your project when you can utilize them, and to what extent is a challenge you can overcome with proper resource capacity planning and skills management in Jira.

Resource availability and capacity

You can take various measurements to ensure your resources meet the project goals on time without under or overallocating them. For instance, you can reassign tasks, change their deadlines, or extend/shorten periods with just a few clicks. After all, a well-balanced workload that does not exceed the maximum capacity helps protect your people from experiencing burnout. 

On the other hand, allocating resources according to their availability means fewer conflicts that could arise over the course of the project lifecycle.

Resources module featuring capacities for each resource in a project. Colored bars indicate whether one has too little, enough, or too much work assigned.

Schedule and timeframe

Project timeframe refers to the project’s duration. The duration can be longer due to the complexity of the project itself. As a result, the longer the timeframe, the more probable the changes in a project will occur. These changes, in turn, can further increase the level of complexity. That is why it is paramount that you can track and accommodate all the changes happening to the project.

Begin with a clear, detailed, and specific goal in mind. And then, break it into small and measurable pieces, which, later on, you will put on a timeline. Naturally, the longer the project, the more tasks, and issues arise to deal with. It also means longer involvement of resources you need to secure for your project. But with a detailed work breakdown of your work, you can plan better in terms of schedule, task priority, and assignees.

Project breakdown against a timeline

You can outline complex project major deliverables in the form of a product backlog and decompose them into smaller tasks in each iteration. Or, treat them as work packages and decompose them into activities using a top-down or bottom-up planning technique.

Whichever management approach you choose, BigPicture gives you all the necessary tools to achieve your goals. It comes with product roadmapping and project roadmapping tools, a Gantt chart, a Kanban board, and many more to help you decompose and schedule your project. And later on, track its every aspect.

Gantt chart visualizing a Classic project.

You can create detailed work breakdown structures across any project timeframe with unlimited nesting levels. And as mentioned earlier, easily assign the respective elements to your project resources. Furthermore, the what-if scenarios will let you test for potential consequences in your project schedule and mitigate the worst-case scenarios.

Uncertainty and unpredictability

Complex projects carry a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. Project leaders must often make decisions in an environment where many critical factors are beyond their control, including domestic and foreign politics, law, and the market.

Moreover, uncertainty can also occur when you do not have clarity over what your project is expected to deliver and what the project delivery process will look like. Adopting a brand-new tool or managerial approach can also be a source of complexity. However, once the team becomes familiar with the new tool, the uncertainty around it disappears.

Building a risk matrix for complex projects

Uncertainties, or risks, come with the probability of happening and the degree of impact should they happen. The higher the probability and impact, the higher the risk score. And the higher the risk score, the more attention (priority) you should devote to it. In complex projects, there is a higher probability of the risk occurring. Also, you cannot always predict the potential consequences of some risks to your project and other project elements.

A project risk assessment technique allows you to evaluate and classify uncertainties when managing a complex project. It involves building a matrix that positions the risks based on their risk score. BigPicture for Jira comes with a dedicated and highly customizable risk matrix feature. It allows you to add project tasks that carry risks (issues as risks). In addition, you can also add the standalone issues that are not project tasks.

Risks heatmap in BigPicture.

In either case, the risks you put on your matrix can be part of your project or another initiative. It means you can populate the matrix with the project and cross-project risks. Thanks to this, you will
keep sight of all the uncertainties that could potentially arise and affect your project.