Complex Projects

Complex Projects

Complex projects1 are projects that are characterized as having many different social and technical elements on many different levels that are interconnected and interdependent. In contrast to simpler projects that are standardized, well-defined endeavors within predictable and stable environments, complex projects typically involve a high degree of uncertainty in defining end objectives, they often take place within a changing environment and may involve the input of many diverse stakeholders.


In 2009 the Project Management Institute PMI announced their book of the year as the publication entitled “Managing Complex Projects, A New Model” declaring it a groundbreaking study of complex project management. In the preface to the book the author writes: “It is now becoming clear that our conventional project management processes are inadequate when managing complex projects. Research is underway by the Project Management Institute, and others to determine what makes projects complex and to learn how to manage project complexity. Many thought leaders in the field of project management are presenting alternative approaches to managing complex projects. We are now realizing that new approaches are desperately needed to manage complex projects in the ever-changing global economic environment.”2 The book goes on to talk about how for organizations to survive and thrive in today’s global economy, they must find ways to dramatically improve the performance of large-scale projects. It talks about how applying the concepts of complexity theory can complement conventional project management approaches and enable us to adapt to this new context of having to deliver large scale complex projects under uncertainty and volatility.


A project is a temporary endeavor composed of a set of tasks that are coordinated into achieving a particular result. It is designed to execute on the organization’s strategy. Tasks are integrated into processes to ensure the work is coordinated and completed within a given set of constraints such as time, quality, scope, and budget. Thus projects have a set of boundaries that define them and they take place within a particular environment. Like organizations, projects are systems. They can be simple, linear systems or complex systems. In this section, we are going to talk about the qualitative difference between the two, so as to understand why we need a fundamentally different approach to our traditional project management methods. We will start by talking about the nature of linear standardized projects with some examples.

Linear Projects

Moving house is an example of a simple standardized project. It is a relatively straightforward process. We know the current state of the system (our present house with all our things in it). We know the desired end result (the house we are moving to with all our things there). The environment within which our moving house project will take place is relatively stable and predictable. Thus the project simply consists of completing a very limited number of well-defined stages in a sequential order. There are of course many examples of more complicated projects. Building an airplane is a good example of a complicated project. There are many parts, many instructions that need to be followed exactly, and many stages that need to be completed over a prolonged period of time. But although complicated, it is still a linear deterministic project. We know the starting state, the desired end state, and we can decompose the project into a clear set of sequences that follow a deterministic linear projection. Before looking at complex projects we will firstly itemize the key features to standardized projects for clarity sake. Firstly, we are dealing with a well-defined project: With these standardized projects, the statement of work, the scope of the project and its boundaries are reasonably well defined. We know where we are, and we know where we want to go. Secondly, the project can be decomposed: The project can be decomposed into a set of stages and these stages can be performed in isolation and then recombined to produce the end result. Thirdly, the environment is relatively stable and predictable: The environment is unchanging and there are a limited number of elements interacting in a well-known linear fashion, making extreme events, extremely unlikely. Fourthly, standardized procedures can be applied: We can use a project management methodology that has been developed and undergone continuous improvements after use on several previous projects. We are able to use best practices and lessons learned. We follow the well-defined life-cycle phases, and we have forms, templates, checklists, and guidelines to assist us through each phase.

Complex Projects

Much of our project management methods were developed during the industrial age to deal with projects of this nature and have proven effective and scalable in delivering large-scale industrial projects, from building national power grids to landing people on the moon. The problem arises when we have to deal with more complex situations, which is increasingly the case. So let’s start with an example of a complex project. One example of this might be trying to improve the standard of living within a particularly disadvantaged area of a city. We are dealing with many diverse elements from crime prevention to education to public services, infrastructure, social workers and so on, multiple stakeholders who have disparate opinions about the current state of the system and its desired future state. Added to this, the neighborhood represents a unique social, cultural and economic mix that would reject any standardized process or procedure for altering it. The environment within which the project takes place may be dynamic and volatile, a financial crash may occur within the broader economy or there may be a major change in the political regime. Lastly, we are dealing with a whole system. Optimizing any component in isolation would be of limited value in achieving our desired outcome. We would need to work across traditional boundaries creating synergies to tackle interdisciplinary problems from different dimensions.


We will analyze this project a bit further to untangle what makes it truly complex instead of just complicated. To start with, we are not exactly sure where we are and where we are going with the project. In complex projects, we do not have complete information and knowledge of the system we are dealing with. We may be starting the project with an ill-defined scope, thereby requiring numerous scope changes throughout the project and, consequently having a moving target as an end point. In such a case we have to take a step and then see where we are and what the goal is and then readjust. The outcomes cannot be envisaged at the inception of the project then delivered as planned, but constant adaptation is required. Secondly, complex and volatile environments: As with our example previously, complex projects are open to their environment, meaning they are interdependent on and embed within larger systems. Projects may be subject to constant and volatile change. Change in technologies, change in the business and market environment, change in organizational structure and policy, and change among the project’s key stakeholders and the strategic directions, which are often outside the direct control of the project team.  As we have seen in previous lectures these complex environments are nonlinear, meaning there is also a much higher likelihood of extreme events occurring. Thirdly, standard procedures cannot be used: Complex projects are more like living organisms than machines for which we can have instruction manuals. They have to evolve over time in response to the particular local conditions, and they may go through phase transition into new unpredictable states. Lastly, complex projects cross traditional boundaries and deal with multiple diverse stakeholders: There is often a complex social dimension to large projects. Governance will appear in the hands of many rather than in the hands of few. Stakeholders may represent widely divergent political, cultural and social values and beliefs. Within this environment, there is a strong need to create a context for a common understanding of objectives. Communications and stakeholder analysis become central.

Systems Innovation

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