How to Manage the Complexities of Urgent Projects


This article in the Complex Project Management, What’s All the Fuss About? series considers the unique complexities of projects that are urgent, critical, and demanding. We again offer both old and new management strategies to handle the complexities. Refer to Table 1: Urgent and Inflexible Project Complexity Profile to examine the nature of the urgency of projects increases.

Complexity Dimension #3: Urgency and Inflexibility

Complexity Dimensions

Project Profile


Independent Project

Moderately Complex Project

Highly Complex Project

Highly Complex Program “Megaproject”

Urgency and Flexibility of Cost, Time, and Scope

  • Scope: minimized

  • Milestones: small

  • Schedule/Budget: flexible

  • Scope: achievable

  • Milestones: achievable

  • Schedule/Budget: minor variations

  • Scope: over-ambitious

  • Milestones: over-ambitious, firm

  • Schedule/Budget: inflexible

  • Scope: aggressive

  • Milestones: aggressive, urgent

  • Schedule/Budget: aggressive

Table 1: Urgent and Inflexible Project Complexity Profile

Today it seems like every project is urgent due to time-to-market compression and fierce competition in the global marketplace. Economists caution us that success in the 21st century is contingent on our ability to produce innovative products swiftly to meet growing demands in emerging markets. The fiercely competitive marketplace has imposed a grinding sense of urgency on almost all innovation projects.

In this article we recommend management techniques that can help you and your team manage the complexities that are most likely present in urgent projects, while establishing and maintaining an environment of adaptability, innovation, and creativity.

What Makes Urgent Projects Complex?

For urgent projects, time is critical for project success; delays mean a high probability of project failure. Bringing a new product to market in a highly competitive technology marketplace, such as the Apple iPad, is an example of a planned urgent project. Crisis situations such as war and natural disasters are examples of unplanned urgent projects, those that suddenly arise because of an unforeseen critical event. In almost all urgent projects, innovation and a high level of creativity is required for success.

Whether planned or unexpected, urgent projects usually have several things in common: Cost is not an issue, time is of the essence, and priority is high. Fixed deadlines almost always add risk to projects because the time factor is interdependent with other competing demands, including project scope, quality, risk, and cost.

High Stakes

Examples of urgent projects abound. Technology companies need to be first to market, or their organization may falter. Whether developing an innovative new device for agents in the field or a faster, better way to collect and analyze intelligence information, in the intelligence community the stakes are always high. Cost and process are of little concern, but time and accuracy are critical. High-stakes projects almost always involve these complexities:

  • There may be little time to experiment, create, innovate, or ensure that we have the “best” solution—the team must act quickly to resolve the burning need.

  • The project team works in isolation in an attempt to free itself of all external distractions; thus, interrelationships and dependencies are often not discovered until the new product is in the field.

  • Multiple urgent project teams operating concurrently run the risk of duplicating efforts, or even worse, fielding solutions that are disharmonious instead of complementary, possibly leading to confusion, mistakes, and misinformation.

  • For urgent projects to succeed, they need a project team that operates like a special task force, staffed with handpicked members who are focused solely on resolving the crisis swiftly. Procedures are simplified, sometimes abandoned completely, and senior management is highly involved and supportive.1 Think of paramedic teams, fire fighters, special ops teams. They are all highly skilled, highly practices, mission focused, and disciplined. Our recommendations center on the differences between leading planned urgent projects and managing unplanned urgent projects driven by unexpected events.

How to Manage Planned Urgent Projects

To make planned urgent projects successful, we are able to take the time to set up the appropriate infrastructure. Critical steps include:

  1. Establishing special teams,

  2. Assigning the best resources, and

  3. Time-boxing the effort.

Establishing Special Teams

Many organizations that operate in a competitive new-product-development environment establish permanent innovation teams. Planned, urgent projects are often managed through special units that transcend typical organizational boundaries and are focused on innovation, emerging markets, and new business ventures. These special operations teams are flexibly structured and highly connected via the Internet and periodic face-to-face meetings. To succeed these groups need executive support from the highest levels of the organization—and full funding. Some organizations establish the innovation teams as a separate new product development division, while others establish one “urgent project team” that spans all divisions and works on projects that meet predefined criteria.

Assigning the Best Resources

Not everyone can work successfully under the intensity required by urgent projects. And then, some people thrive on the excitement and challenge. So, it is important to select team members carefully. Team members on urgent projects must have the experience, maturity, empowerment, influence, skills, information, and motivation to make decisions with little data and to adapt to change quickly. They must also be able to move freely from project to project as priorities change. Flexible and agile project management, business analysis, and systems engineering procedures and tools, along with a project sponsor who is available in real time, all combine to provide the foundation for this flexibility.

Time-Boxing the Effort

Most innovation teams are given a fixed time within which to design and deliver new products. A few years ago, most urgent projects were expected to be completed within 18 months. Now it seems that urgent project teams are under constant pressure to deliver even faster, within or under six months. While we all hate fixed deadlines, a time-boxed schedule increases the level of urgency the project team feels and forces decisions to be made quickly and efficiently.

Innovation teams today are structuring their schedule into a series of iterations, each marked by the completion of a major deliverable. They almost always conduct reviews after each iteration to capture learnings, ensure the quality of the deliverables, and move quickly into the next iteration. This approach frees the team to focus on the work needed to complete the current iteration only. To meet time pressures, some innovation teams eliminate all “nice-to-haves” and unnecessary features, while others thrive on surprising their customers with features they didn’t even know they wanted. A great example of this is Apple. They don’t hold focus groups to determine what their customers want...they build surprisingly innovative products that set new heights of customer satisfaction. But most innovation experts deliver a minimal workable solution to test the viability of the concept in the marketplace before investing in the full product.

How to Manage Unplanned Urgent Projects

For unexpected urgent projects, the initial environment is most often one of chaos. A sense of urgency imbues everyone—project team members and stakeholders alike—with a clear focus and strong motivation to perform. Consider the rescuers after a major disaster. Fire fighters and paramedics are highly trained and skilled; nevertheless, events (such as Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attack) occur for which we are woefully unprepared. The essential elements of success when an unexpected urgent situation arises include establishing and maintaining a sense of urgency and employing proven critical practices. Often, routine procedures are abandoned and teams form around anyone who shows leadership. Teams form and re-form according to the need, sometimes following protocol, sometimes making it up as they go along—adapting to their environment. It is no secret that really urgent projects can be carried out in record time using unconventional, sometimes radical techniques. Management techniques we recommend for urgent, unstable situations with a high degree of uncertainty include staffing the project with flexible, high-performing team members who welcome unorthodox practices and making it clear to team members and stakeholders that time drives all decisions. Additional considerations include:

  • Field full-time, temporary teams comprised of experts in the field.

  • Use a twinned leadership model. This model calls for two “teams” – one doing the work on the ground and one handling relationships with stakeholders, outside authorities, and the news media so that the team can remain focused on execution.

  • Insist on face-to-face decision-making. Replace traditional, hierarchical procedures with regular stand-up meetings attended by top managers who have the authority to make cost-related decisions and oral commitments.

  • Deploy all available resources. Use suppliers and contractors as partners, which allows everyone to focus on meeting needs rather than protecting against their own risks.

  • Employ a proactive communication strategy. The teams anticipate challenges involving stakeholders and the media, and they proactively establish steering groups to agree on priorities, tasks, and roles and responsibilities.

  • Support teambuilding. Recognize the value and necessity of building team relationships while the work is underway.

  • Monitor changing perceptions of urgency. Cost is not considered a factor in up-front decision-making based on the urgency of the situation. However, as other priorities arise, you may find that perceptions of urgency lessened over time. To avoid subsequent criticism for inappropriate expenditures, be alert to changing perceptions and manage expectations accordingly.


Even though it seems like every project is urgent today, examine the rationale for the urgency rigorously to ensure you employ the most appropriate management strategies. A summary of the complexities caused by urgency, and management approaches for you to consider appears below in Table 2: Approaches for Managing the Complexities of Urgent Projects.



Management Approaches

  • High stakes; highly visible

  • Time rules, supersedes best practices

  • Cost typically not an issue (but can becomes an issue if urgency wanes)

  • Team struggles to remain independent of external constraints

  • Process is thrown out

  • Interdependencies are missed due to speed and isolation

  • Sense of urgency fades

  • Environment of confusion, mistakes and misinformation


  • Establish permanent, flexible innovation teams or task forces
  • Hand pick the best team members
  • Use “twinned leadership”
  • Time-box the effort to promote urgency
  • Deliver minimal workable solution
  • Partnerships vs. contractor relationship
  • Insist on face-to-face decision-making
  • Deploy all available resources
  • Employ a proactive communication strategy to maintain the sense of urgency
  • Monitor changing perceptions of urgency


  • Establish a time-boxed schedule to create urgency and force decision making
  • Conduct decision gate reviews

Table 2: Approaches for Managing the Complexities of Urgent Projects

Adapted with permission from Managing Complex Projects, A New Model, by Kathleen B. Hass. ©2009 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved.

Author: Kathleen B. (Kitty) Hass, PMP, is an Award Winning Author, Consultant, Facilitator, and Presenter, an IIBA Board of Director and Chair of the IIBA Chapter Governance Committee and Chapter Council. Kitty is the president of Kathleen Hass and Associates, Inc., a practice specializing in business analysis, complex project management, and strategy execution. Download free information about business analysis at or contact her directly at [email protected].



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