Five Tips for Solving Complex Problems as a Project Manager

Solving complex problems is a critical skill for project managers. In the real world, the business problems that affect your customers and staff are messy and amorphous. But traditional project management training treats “scope creep” as a risk to be minimized through the mechanics of change management, and scorns very wide scope complex problem-solving projects as a fantasy akin to “boiling the ocean” or “solving world hunger”.* To thrive as a project manager in the real world, follow these five tips for solving complex problems:

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1. Get real about scope and difficulty.

It is natural to underestimate the size of a business problem and overestimate the ease with which it can be solved. So do this reality check up front: if it really wasn’t a big deal, then we would not be getting these customer complaints, it would have been solved a long time ago, and we wouldn’t need a project team to tackle it. Also don’t fall into the trap of explaining away negative customer feedback as a one-off special cause, or mocking complaints that aren’t phrased eloquently. For every complaint you receive, there are probably ten more out there that you’ll never see. A much better approach is to treat each customer complaint as an early warning sign that there is something wrong with your business processes, and be thankful a customer took the time to tell you.

2. Get comfortable with ambiguity.

Business problems have multiple and intertwined root causes. There is no way you can know at the beginning of a project everything that you will uncover when you start digging. And it is unlikely that you will have great data and reliable metrics when you begin. Instead, document your initial assumptions and estimates, but realize that your charter will need to be updated later on. Your project plan will be good guidance for the journey, but it is not a 100% accurate road map, and it certainly isn’t static. You as the project manager will need to be comfortable operating in the gray space, especially during the early stages, and will need to convince your team that the project will progress to bring clarity to the ambiguity.

3. Get creative about your problem-solving approach.

There are many helpful problem-solving tools available from project management, Lean Six Sigma, and other disciplines. To be a great project manager, you need to be able to use a variety of tools. But more importantly, you need to be attuned to what you are actually finding during your problem-solving journey and adjusting your approach accordingly. And you have to be really perceptive to the needs of your stakeholders and project team and figure out which approaches will resonate with them. For example, while I am a big proponent of Kaizen, I wouldn’t try to fit that method into every situation. Also, there are really cool techniques that will help your team but never get shared in your presentations because they are too complicated. Remember that you are trying to solve the business problem for your stakeholders and communicate your progress, not train them in every single tool you used or every detailed step you took. Rigidity is never the best plan: I have seen too many project managers get tripped up by their belief in a cookbook approach for problem-solving. Creativity is your friend, and flexibility is a better plan.

4. Get flexible with your project team.

The more complex the problem, the more the makeup and responsibilities of your team will change over the course of the project. Subject matter experts will move on and off the team as their knowledge is needed. Translating the project outcomes into their needs will help you enlist the support of these experts when you need them. As you figure out the root causes of the business problem, you may need to sequence the rollout of different solutions into phases, or even spin off sections of the project. As you run into challenges with execution or timing, you will need to flex your own involvement in different aspects of the project and flex the responsibilities of team members. Also be flexible to engage your team members in their preferred communication format as much as possible, and seek their input for how your project management can be improved and make the adjustments.

5. Get pumped up about the end game.

As you can see, complex projects are very challenging! It takes a lot of hard work and critical thinking skills to solve business problems that affect your customers and staff. Ensure that team members are benefiting from their involvement in your project. Develop their skills and capabilities as you are developing solutions. Align the project outcomes to their goals and objectives as much as you can. Your ability to get people excited about your project will also pay off when team members run into the inevitable challenges of competing priorities and conflicting workloads, making it more likely they will continue to support your project when pressed for time. You need to be excited about solving the problem and inspire your team to feel that way too. Be sure to share recognition about the great work your team members are doing with their leaders and stakeholders. At the end of the project, before everyone rushes on to the next challenge, take the time for a team celebration and recognition event.


My intent is to be thought-provoking and idea-generating. Whether you share these visions and are trying to pursue them, or you have a completely opposite view, let’s keep the conversation going at or @mikefenocketti.