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The Simple Truths About Project Complexity

Designating projects by tier has become a fairly common and valuable practice among in-house agencies, and for good reason – it helps groups determine both the appropriate size and makeup of project teams and the level of effort that will be required to execute any given job. Along with tiering, there’s another, sometimes overlooked, consideration that has an impact on project teams and hours – the complexity of jobs.

While tiering captures the creative requirements of a project, complexity defines the logistical and project management requirements. In this post, we’ll share more on the project-specific criteria that influence the complexity of our jobs and, as a result, should be on your radar.

Project Initiation and Client Handoffs
How well (or not so well) handoffs are managed by our clients determines just how efficiently our creative teams can initiate and prep new projects. Receiving a project that has poor to no upfront direction (a comprehensive creative or project brief would be nice) or, conversely, getting well thought-out direction, will have an impact on how many people and how much effort will be needed for how long to execute the job.

Efficiency is also affected by how well the content provided to your group is organized and consolidated. Therefore, a project that’s given to your agency with unclear direction and disorganized/fractured content should be categorized as a high- to medium-complexity job. And the project’s scope, level of effort and cost should reflect that designation.

Number of Client Stakeholders
The complexity of a project is directly proportional to the number of stakeholders on the client side. The more stakeholders involved with a project, the more direction, conflicting direction, feedback and conflicting feedback your account team will need to resolve. There may also be multiple iterations of the creative, as lower-level stakeholders often request revisions FIRST before showing it to their upper management – who will then have additional revisions for the team.

Condition and Format of Project Feedback
Regardless of how many stakeholders offer their feedback, the way they provide it also plays into project complexity. Revision requests that are clear, complete, consolidated and well documented will lower the complexity quotient. If the feedback comes in multiple emails with poor or unclear referencing, then the complexity would be higher.

Inclusion of SMEs in the Review Process
A slightly different flavor of the multiple stakeholders’ impact on complexity is the addition of Subject Matter Experts to the mix. These partners can be extremely prescriptive in their feedback, and justifiably so as they are directly accountable for the accuracy of the content. For creative teams, though, their involvement in the review process can add to the number of rounds (and added hours) their projects go through.

Regulatory Review
Even lower tier projects that require little creative effort can be highly complex if they’re slated for some form of regulatory review. The level of effort shows up both when files are submitted to the regulatory reviewers (often such files have to be carefully and methodically prepped), as well as during the revision process. (Here again, the files must be prepped and often require detailed refinements.)

C-suite Clients
Let’s face it, regardless of how simple the project is, our teams drop everything when a request comes in from anyone with “the big-C” in front of their title. Often these projects are rush, high-touch jobs that require intensive focus from the account and creative teams.

Information-intensive Deliverables
Can anyone say quarterly financial report? This is a perfect example of a job, with more numbers than a physics theorem, which had better be accurate and on time – in spite of changes that often occur just minutes before going to press. Even though the job is almost entirely an exercise in production with little creative, it frequently lands on the high end of the complexity spectrum.

Inexperienced Clients
Working with clients who haven’t partnered with a creative group can lead to a lot of the challenges noted above. At the same time, if you’re lucky enough to have a rookie client who’s receptive to your coaching and mentoring on the creative process over the course of a project then the job will also include additional time and effort. Again, we’re looking at a level of your team’s involvement beyond what you’d spend on a typical project. Therefore, this job deserves a higher complexity designation.

Quick-turn Jobs
Less time equals more effort, more people, more confusion – ‘nuff said.

The Unknowns and How to Handle Them
Most likely, you’ll know up-front most of the criteria that will affect the complexity of your jobs such as the need for regulatory/legal review or a quick-turn deadline. But what about the unknowns at project initiation such as the good or bad habits your clients may engage in, number of stakeholders involved and the experience level of your clients. Listing assumptions like these at the outset, say in a Statement of Work (SOW) can be very beneficial. It will help you mitigate the risk of taking a financial or scheduling hit, by giving you the opportunity to issue change orders. Also, over time, with repeat clients, you’ll know what level of complexity to assign to a job at project initiation.

Ultimately, not only will assigning levels of complexity to your jobs aid in determining who will work on a project and how much of their effort will be needed, but complexity designations may also help to drive good client behaviors, by showcasing the cost of not engaging in productive collaborative best practices. These benefits far outweigh any additional time and focus required to consistently assign complexity categories to your projects. In summary, it’s really this simple.


Andy Epstein

Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.

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