Project Complexity

Complexity – complicated isn’t it.

Well actually no.

To the person in the street they mean the same thing, but in Complexity Theory and thus to informed project managers the terms ‘Complex’ and ‘Complicated’ mean different things, because they are describing different situations.

However this is not yet fully appreciated by many commentators in the field, hence the confusion over what amounts to a complex project. This would not matter, if it was not for the fact that the best approach to running a complicated project, is not the best approach to running a complex project. They are two different problems with two different solutions.

Simple View of Complexity

Some people take a relatively simple view based on the size of the project (no of tasks) and its duration, calling any long project with a lot of tasks a ‘complex’ one.

Project Complexity - Simple View1

There can be an element of truth to this, but a more sophisticated analysis can be more helpful

More Sophisticated Views of Complexity

Complicated Projects

In essence a complicated project might be large and involve a lot of activities, but it has a known solution, often because something fairly similar has been done before in similar circumstances.

There can still be problems along the way, but they are of the fairly predictable kind, that standard project management and risk management techiques can handle.

In the jargon, these are sometimes called linear or 1st-order projects.

Complex Projects

A problem is complex when a solution is not known at the outset, but has to be discovered along the way. Thus the project has to not only achieve the deliverable, but discover how to achieve the deliverable as well. The solution ‘emerges’ as the project goes on and the result is not just the sum of the parts.

This leads to much greater degrees of uncertainty about time and cost and often this can be combined with changing circumstances through the project.

These projects are inherently unpredictable, so standard project management and risk management techniques don’t work as well in these situations, so we need a different approach to achieve success.

In the jargon, these are sometimes called non-linear, 2nd-order or dynamic projects


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