December 29, 2010 Vol. 3, Issue 12
Complex projects today are defined by collaboration and strategic partnerships.
Collaboration has never been easy. Command-and-control organizations rose to prominence in the 20th century precisely because it is easier to direct people than it is to collaborate with them. That age of project management has come and gone.What has changed? First, complexity has increased exponentially. This is conventional wisdom at this point, so let’s be more specific. At its core, project complexity has three dimensions: technical, organizational, and strategic. Technical complexity is just what it sounds like—the degree to which a system is so interconnected that a change in one place leads to a thousand complications in others. Integration is a key driver of technical complexity. Organizational complexity stems from the number and types of partners involved in a project. Complex project teams are typically distributed and virtual, posing challenges ranging from maintaining team situational awareness to understanding differences in work processes. Strategic complexity refers to the number and diversity of stakeholders in a project. As a government agency, NASA is accountable to the White House, Congress, and ultimately the American public. When international partners are involved in a mission, strategic issues multiply. This is an increasingly important dimension as more NASA missions include international collaboration.
Organizational and strategic complexity is closely tied to the other reasons that projects are collaborative ventures today. The first is resources—the days of going it alone are behind us. Other organizations also have capabilities ranging from infrastructure to processes that complement ours. Similarly, no organization has all the answers. When we partner with another organization in any sector, we’re looking for ideas and expertise as much as anything. NASA has always worked with other government agencies, industry, universities, and international partners. What’s changed is the interdependent nature of those relationships. Our critical path activities now depend on our partners.
Collaboration is neither cheap nor easy (see the article in this issue about the National Research Council’s recent report on this subject), but it is the way we do business today and for the foreseeable future. It’s our job to get better at it.