Adviser and coach, Kieran Duck looks at how complex projects include social, as well as technical considerations. Have we forgotten how to build connections?

In the final scene of the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent, the main characters of the film, are sitting in a diner discussing the events of the day and how they narrowly escaped being killed by an inept gunman. Jules describes it as ‘the miracle we witnessed’, to which Vincent replies, “The miracle you witnessed, I witnessed a freak occurrence.” Jules goes on to describe how he is going to fundamentally change his life, how he is going to ‘walk the Earth’ and ‘just be Jules’. This incident has no impact on Vincent. How is it possible that they experienced exactly the same situation, but had such different interpretations of it?

Complexity can be like this, where exactly the same information leads to different conclusions. We see it with COVID responses – everyone has access to basically the same information but reactions at the individual, organisational, and national levels differ dramatically. In projects, differences of opinions will have an impact when trying to finalise a new wage deal, sign off a building layout, or even agree about what was decided in a meeting. This subjectivity, where individuals define reality based on their world views, is a critical characteristic of complex projects.


The nature of complexity

Along with the subjective nature of many issues, the defining characteristics of complex projects are that they are:

  • Connected – the topic is so broad and interrelated that no one individual can see the whole system, often creating unexpected consequences and requiring multiple views to be brought together.
  • Unknowable – some things don’t reveal their true nature until you get into them. This is what David Snowden calls ‘complex and chaotic’ in his Cynefin model. You can’t rely on previous experience and have to ‘sense and respond’ to really understand the nature of this situation.
  • Unique – when it comes to genuinely complex projects, this group of people have never been in this situation facing this problem, so new norms and procedures need to be built.
  • Constrained – finally, while all projects have constraints, complex projects have political, financial, and legal trade-offs that are highly visible but can also be debated to test if they are real.


These characteristics are created by the social conditions, not technical issues. The result is a fluid situation with distributed power that can shape-shift and develop based on changing attitudes and judgement. For example, a new technology project gets unexpectedly delayed by nine months because employees launch a court challenge to the impact on staffing levels or the construction of a new dam gets halted by the social media campaign of an activist. In complexity, the boundary of what is in and out of scope can be unclear at the beginning, and even the definition of what is important can mutate as the project evolves.

What becomes important in complex projects is the ability to navigate a range of opinions, to bring together disparate ideas, to build bridges between teams. Complexity requires you to create coalitions to drive ideas and actions forward. Project managers need to become experts at building connections.


Building connections

What do I mean by connection? It is about bringing people together to build a collective view of a situation. It starts with getting to know others, to see their perspective, to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’.

Let me give you an example. I worked on a large infrastructure project that was running late and over budget when I got involved. At the heart of the problem was the design sign-off. It required the packs to be submitted for review, the customer provided comments, and the packs were then updated and resubmitted. This cycle continued until there were no more comments. It was never clear how many iterations were required. The result was no reliability in the plan and no agreement on when the design milestone would be achieved (estimates ranged from 4-10 months).

Project analysts were diving into detail to create a ‘more reliable’ plan, but this highlighted more and more dependencies and, as often happens when you add more detail, the timeframes blew out further. This approach wasn’t working.

Instead of going into more detail, what we did was look at how to connect the suppliers’ design team with the customer – to bring the teams closer together. Within the limits of the contract, we co-located teams for a few days to actively debate the designs. It became clear that one side was trying to create a technically brilliant product while the other wanted to reduce ongoing risk. With greater connection between the team, the design was submitted, and most packs were signed off in a single cycle.

The benefit of connection wasn’t just a one off. I have seen a large military project accelerate delivery when the contractor and customer spent time together and realised that, even though the contract was clear, the underlying goals (low cost versus high functionality) were at odds. The business transformation that was stalled in union negotiations that was freed up by individuals spending time together, building trust, and coming to a much more creative arrangement to achieve their outcomes.


How to do it well

Connection isn’t easy. It takes effort to build, spending time with people in a deliberate and focussed way to understand their reality.

As leaders, there are six things, not normally found in the project managers training manual, that are essential to increase the level of connection in your team:

  1. Ask good questions. Given that perspectives define what is real, only by asking good questions do we understand someone else’s experience and what is true for them right now. After Action Reviews are an excellent example of how a few good questions bring forward a shared understanding.
  2. Listen intently. If you have asked a good question, listen intently for the response. Listen for what they are passionate about. Listen for their brilliance. Listening is a gift you give to the speaker and requires you to be genuinely interested in the person.
  3. Draw for clarity. Done well, visuals make it easier to think collectively. They crystalise meaning, they externalise the idea from the individual, and can make the complex simple.
  4. Share stories. Stories are the best way to communicate a complex topic. They help us form deep, nuanced pictures of the situation and reveal a lot about the speaker. Stories also activate different parts of the brain – areas involved in attention learning and empathy – that enhance our ability to connect.
  5. Give up knowing. One of the biggest blocks to building genuine connections is believing that you already know the result. Be curious, have a bias for learning, and give up knowing the answer.
  6. Make time. Connections don’t happen without creating space for them to occur. Sometimes it is a conversation, sometimes it is a meal. I always say that a team dinner is so much more than a free feed.


Connection increases your chance of success in complexity

On the infrastructure project I mentioned previously, the result from connecting the teams was that the design was accelerated and the milestone was achieved on time. Other than a couple of minor updates, the dozens of design packs were signed off in a single review while also meeting all contractual requirements for proper process. We were able to reduce time, improve quality, and reduce cost all at once. We lifted the confidence in the program of the executives because they were hearing a common view of progress. One executive even said about the status reports that he ‘no longer felt like he was being lied to’.

Building connections across the project is a more effective leadership style than directing staff with a plan. Understanding opinions and aligning world views makes it easier to recognise how the situation is evolving. It gives you access to all manner of information, particularly when things aren’t going well, keeping you ahead of the game. Connecting with team members brings more perspectives to the table, generate more creative approaches, and broaden what you believe is possible.



With the defining characteristics of complex projects (subjective, connected, unknowable, unique, constrained) being driven by social rather than technical considerations, correctly applying the standard mechanistic project toolkit is ineffective. Project managers often look to ignore (de-scope) or control (risk manage) the wickedness, rather than taking the time to resolve it. To succeed in complex projects, project managers need to expand their toolkit and become masters at bringing people together and building connections.

Building connections not only lifts project performance through greater alignment and understanding, it also elevates the energy and enjoyment of everyone involved. The result is more success in complex projects but also a better place to work.

This article was adapted from The Complex Project Toolkit: Using design thinking to transform the delivery of your hardest projects from Major St Publishing, 2021.