Complex projects, just another buzzword?

On average, businesses set themselves six times as many performance requirements as they did in 1955. Many of these requirements appear to be in conflict; Companies want to satisfy their customers, who demand low prices and high quality; They seek to customize their offerings while standardization is key. They want to innovate and be efficient, all at the same time.

These requirements have resulted in more procedures, countless mandatory decision approvals and additional layers and coordination bodies in the governance structure. As you can imagine, this has not made managing a business or even a project more simple. As an example, managers often spend up to 40% of their time writing reports and 50% of it in coordination meetings. As a result, employees in these organizations are three times as likely to be disengaged.

Dilbert on Complexity

In this context, leaders believe that a rapid escalation of “complexity” is the biggest challenge confronting them the next years and many feel unprepared to cope with this effectively. Increasing complexity is not just a hype, but a real challenge. One that project managers definitely face as well.

PMI has recently published a practice guide on how to deal with complexity and indicates three categories of complexity causes: human behaviour, system behaviour and ambiguity. At Threon, based on our practical experience, we can relate to these categories.

Human Behaviour

Complexity in projects is often a result of the people involved in the execution or who believe to be impacted by the project in a certain way. This can vary from individual behaviour (such as resistance or anchoring) to behaviour on group or organizational level (e.g. political behaviour, lack of stakeholder commitment, etc.). Also (cultural) diversity within project teams or organizational design can contribute to increased complexity in this category.

System Behaviour

One could consider a project to be a system that exists within another system (the sponsoring organization). Within a system, many factors are at play, such as procedures, structures, human activities, rules and guidelines, etc. All of these somehow relate to each other, causing connections and interdependencies. When not fully understood or well managed, these can quickly make your project more complex.


PMI describes ambiguity as a state of being unclear and not knowing what to expect or how to interpret a situation. This can be caused by unanticipated changes resulting in new behaviours or new characteristics, or by a lack of awareness or understanding of issues, necessary decisions or solutions.

© Markus TackerIn traditional views on project management, we assume that the future is largely controllable, which is why we develop detailed schedules and cost plans. However in practice we see that this is not the case. In today’s fast changing business environment, we see that the causes mentioned above are becoming more common and frequent. As a consequence, many projects are quickly becoming more complex and, although still crucial, traditional project management techniques alone are no longer adequate to manage these complex projects effectively.

A first important step in dealing with complexity is creating awareness within your project team concerning the complex nature of your project. Make sure to also focus on communication and leadership rather than just on project management tools & techniques. Try to understand where the complexity is really coming from before diving into quick fixes.

In conclusion we would like to note that complexity should not necessarily be seen as a problem that needs to be solved, but rather as an opportunity that when managed properly can offer great results.

Photos by NASA and Markus Tacker

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