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Conquering Complex Projects

by Beth Johnson on February 2nd, 2012

Complexity. As a project manager at Brain Traffic, I hear clients use that word a lot. And, for good reason. When you think of everything involved in content strategy, it can get pretty overwhelming. In fact, Dictionary.com defines complex as:

  • Composed of many interconnected parts; compound; composite: a complex highway system.
  • Characterized by a very complicated or involved arrangement of parts, units, etc.: complex machinery.
  • So complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with: a complex problem.

Content projects regularly fit each (and sometimes all three!) of these definitions. So, how do you tackle complex projects? Where do you start?

Step 1: Diagnose the problem

The first—and most critical—step is to take time to identify why exactly your project is unique, different, hard, or complex. It’s not as hard as you think. You’ve got help. Project managers have been thinking about what makes projects complex for decades.

In his paper, “Project Complexity: A Brief Exposure to Difficult Situations,” project management expert Dr. Lewis Ireland identifies two categories of project complexity factors:


Technical complexity factors

Management complexity factors

  • Number of technologies involved
  • Familiarity of team with technologies
  • Brand new or  well-established technologies
  • Number of technical interfaces
  • Project staffing and management
  • Number of parties involved
  • Change-related issues
  • Stability and complexity of requirements
  • Political issues
  • Time/cost issues


Conveniently, Dr. Ireland’s categories line up with the two halves of “the quad” (a graphic we use at Brain Traffic to help our clients understand the interrelated areas of content strategy). The halves are:

  • Content components—what the content is and how it gets prioritized and organized.
  • People components—how content moves through the organization and how decisions are made.

Brain Traffic Content Strategy Diagram


When you compare Dr. Ireland’s categories, the quad, and your project particulars, it’s usually pretty easy to identify the factors. Some common complexity factors are:


Content complexity factors

People complexity factors

  • New technology
  • Complicated or unfamiliar subject matter
  • Multiple and varying audiences
  • Large amounts of content
  • Multiple platforms, properties, and content types
  • Stakeholders (large numbers, diverse roles)
  • Multiple teams with different expectations
  • Project participants who don't know each other well
  • Different vendors with different priorities
  • Recent reorganization, creating new or undefined roles


On your project, you may have one factor that makes the project out of the ordinary. Or, you may have a dozen. As we start adding more and more factors, our projects become more and more complicated.

Step 2: Break things down

Once you diagnose the factors that are entirely specific to your project, you can break things down and address each specific element.

For example:

  • Multiple content properties: Choose one property as the parent or priority. Work on recommendations for that property, and then branch out. (Even if this means you might have to update your recommendations later.)
  • Lots of diverse stakeholders: If you have several stakeholder groups, you might want to make a stakeholder matrix to create clarity and define roles. Distribute and share the matrix with the project team and stakeholders. If there has been a recent reorganization, highlight how things have changed.
  • New technology: Budget time and resources for training and research. Bring in experts to help you understand the implications of the new system, if necessary.

Complex problems seem a lot less scary when you look at them in small chunks.

Step 3: Roll with it

And here’s one final bit of advice: Roll with it! Every project has its quirks, and that’s what makes our work challenging and fun.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, thanks.

    I think a further step from my experience, is to learn from each project. There’s a lot of takeways from projects that have a particularly painful pain points and you can use those to evolve steps 1 and 2.

    The more problems you experience, the better equipped you are to diagnose problems earlier in subsequent projects

  • http://imarketingclass.com/seo-vs-content-strategy-and-the-winner-is/ Collins Smith

    Informative article and clear infographic. I cited and linked this infographic in my article “SEO vs. Content Strategy: and the Winner Is?” on imarketingclass.com. 
    Many thanks for helping me add visual interest and relevant information to the article.

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