Project management concepts are well documented and widely implemented across industries. Most of us are familiar with key project management concepts and have implemented it time and again in our projects. The same is true with me as I have implemented and been teaching project management for many years now. However, some of my conversations with managers of complex projects across industries help me realize the versatility of these concepts and its implementability across various project complexity levels.

One of my recent conversations with a Sourabh Bathe, a Masters student at University of Leeds, intrigued me to write about the use of project management techniques in highly complex and domain intensive projects.

Sourabh was working on a case study on a nuclear decommissioning project. Yes, this project turned out to be as complex as it sounds!

Some fundamentals of this project – While nuclear industry is complex with its own set of processes and regulations, decommissioning projects added to its complexity. This is because decommissioning projects have no revenue streams. This means that such projects will have to be highly flexible in terms of cost and schedule. As priorities change, organizations may divert funds to other projects impacting the decommissioning projects. Hence, flexibility is key!

In such projects, what can be done to maintain flexibility in project schedule?

One of the first steps is to understand the fundamentals of decommissioning projects in nuclear sector. Since its nuclear sector, data on radiation levels and other analytical aspects need to be collected at regular intervals. Based on this data, the plan has to be revisited as time and again. This means that such projects are susceptible to huge scope creep throughout the project lifecycle impacting cost and schedule.

For such projects one need to adopt progressive planning. Upfront planning will not be useful for such projects. The primary reason for choosing progressive planning is that it will help you uncover things as you move forward with the project. Progressive planning can be done using an Agile approach or traditional project management approach.

Also, in traditional project we typically spend bulk of the total time in requirement analysis and later on we spend lesser time. This is because, we have complete visibility of requirements in traditional projects and they are highly predictable. In the case of nuclear decommissioning project, things will evolve as you progress. While you may still need to do initial planning, you will not spend bulk of the time at this phase. Rather, you will invest in continuous planning.

In this case, you make a high level plan, which is not very detailed. Nevertheless, it contains stages or provisions for re-planning activities based on learnings at regular intervals. This timing or frequency of re-planning can be determined based on the project. This way, we can ensure to maintain the required flexibility throughout the project lifecycle.

How do you track progress from baseline in such projects where uncertainties are drastic and deviations are huge? Using earned value management gets very difficult. So how do you manage this?

Don’t compare against baseline. In such projects, since we are using progressive planning, we usually don’t compare progress against baseline.Other types of measurements could be used here such as:

What was the plan? What was the reserve? Where do we stand now? How much reserve have we already exhausted?

So, how do we monitor & plan contingency? – You may make a plan for the whole 1 year for the initial level. This may include aspects such as the amount of funds you are going to spend tentatively. Further, every 2-3 months, this can be re-planned.

In progressive planning, we typically give a 1 year cost and reserve projects at the beginning for budget approvals and stakeholder approvals. After a specified interval, say 3 months, you may give a revised projection and highlight the reasons for deviations and the learnings. This means that in such cases, we expect deviations and the emphasis in these projects is on ways on containing such deviations using the contingency reserve. So, while the reports and measurement systems may compare against budget, it is not as simple as comparing the earned value against first baseline as baselines are getting revised. In such cases, your baseline varies as your estimations get refined.

How can we manage resourcing in similar situations?

Progressive planning is not limited to scoping, it also applicable to other areas including resourcing.

There could be a few scenarios that you may want to consider. You may have a set of resources committed for the whole duration, which may represent the core team and will remain throughout the project.

  1. In one scenario, you may be constrained by the fact that you are unable to hire people in-between the project. So, you have to function with the fixed number of people. In this situation, you may want to establish that your resource capacity is fixed. However, as you discover new aspects during the course of the project, you may have to manage the new discoveries with the same set of resources either by prioritizing or by delaying the project. In short, capacity is fixed.
  2. The other approach is where date & time is the most important aspect. As you discover something new, new resources need to be added in order to complete it within the stipulated timeline. Here, timeline is fixed and resourcing is variable.

The key for resource management is that we make these things transparent and visible to the stakeholders. This ensures that they are aware of the probable uncertainties and at regular frequency there are planned checkpoints.

How can this quality be tracked better than conventional projects or what are the tolls that will enable us to track this better?

General Project management does not get into the how part of quality management. Usually it’s the domain that determines quality requirements and standards. The domain also determines the rigor of quality measurements required. Project management requires that we proactively identify measures which ensures quality. This has to be performed by the domain specialists who understand the domain requirements better.

Usually, based on the type of work being performed, organizations learn and accumulate processes knowledge known as organization process assets. In addition, the industry learns on itself and has its own set of knowledge that we call it as enterprise environmental factor. For example, airline industry and Boeing has its own knowledge assets. So when developing quality standards, Boeing will apply both the knowledge base (internal & industry) and ensures that they adhere to the required quality standards. In the same way, in this project one need to look at the sector compliance guidelinesand their own internal compliance guidelines based on past experience.

Integrating project level knowledge:

Nuclear decommissioning includes a number of aspects such as construction, operations, etc., each with its own project management approach. So while integrating various types of Project management approaches intoone portfolio, how can we standardize the definitions and understanding throughout the project?

First we need to find out what are the aspects that need to be standardized. A construction project is a construction project at the end of the day whether for decommissioning or other. However, there may be points of interfaces. We need to have a clear understanding of these interfaces points.

In addition, depending on the level of interdependencies of teams, we need to create an integration process. If the teams are highly interdependent, it may necessitate more joint planning meetings where all the stakeholders share their progressand interdependencies, etc. If the interdependencies limited, then we can have milestone based interface point based integration.

In this case, while decommissioning is a common goal, there may be many projects running in parallel within it each with its own goals, charter, resources, etc. Hence, there should be an overall program management office, which ensures that interdependencies are taken care. So forming a program management layer is key to integrate various projects.

Stakeholder management: How can we manage stakeholders effectively in such complex projects where there are multiple stakeholders?

The Project management team has to figure this out in terms of who are the stakeholders to be managed closely and those stakeholders to be kept informed. So we need to priorities the stakeholdersor classify the stakeholders &prioritize. Stakeholder management could be one of the key success criteria for such projects. In my view, more engagement, transparency and effective PM dashboards, informing about available & exhausted reserves, risks, etc. will drive success. Communication plan along with stakeholder management plan needs to be created and executed. Overall strategy will be driven by the project complexity and requirements as there is no one template that can be provided.

Where will the difference come from for conventional projects Vs research projects?

In Conventional projects, management of stakeholder or communication is about what was planned and what has been achieved. Hence, its variance focused.

In innovation focused projects, where there is frequent change in requirements, the reporting structure is based on what we have learnt. So it involves joint debriefing and relevant stakeholders in planning and re-planning when required. Thus, in innovation projects stakeholder engagement is done by continuous engagement and transparency.

Monitoring Innovation Projects:

Overall, my personal observation is that organizations who have been successful are those where they have a framework of monitoring and not the details of monitoring. This is because, one type of report will not be relevant for all type of projects. But we need to have a framework of monitoring to assess how well we are solving the problem for our clients and customers. So organizations have their key performance measures as their goal post and come up with the detailing required. In repetitive work organizations have detailing related to standardization. Hence, in innovation projects, framework is the key for effective monitoring.

You can refer to the video link below for the detailed discussion of the decommissioning project.

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