Complex projects are a challenge. Managing them requires formal disciplines, effective tools and methods and a true understanding of the nature of complexity and its impact on the project.

Consider a project that requires the integration of multiple IT applications, multiple vendors providing packaged solutions and services; changes to hundreds of operational processes and to roles and responsibilities, a budget in the tens of millions, the training and support of over 8,000 people in a publicly visible geographically, distributed organization in a highly bureaucratic unionized environment that had not undergone any significant change in decades. While this is complex, it is small and simple when compared with the Boston Big Dig and NASA's Mars program.

In two earlier articles, we covered VUCA - the convergence of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - and within VUCA, the aspect of ambiguity. In this article the subject is complexity. While complexity is intertwined with the other aspects, we can assess it individually with the intent to minimize its impact.

Complex vs. Complicated

According to standard dictionaries, both complex and complicated are defined as having a large number of interconnected parts. However, when we look more closely, we find that there is a difference between complex and complicated. In projects, the distinction is an important one.

Complexity implies the inability to predict the outcome of a change because of the large number of interacting people, places and things and the uncertainty caused by constant change. Complexity is present because there is competition for resources, projects effect and are affected by other projects, business operations must continue uninterrupted and there are the personalities of the people involved and the way they relate to one another. If technology is involved (and it usually is) the movement to the cloud, the emergence of ever more powerful tools and relationships among vendors, tools and application systems create even more complexity.

Complex projects have many players with a variety of expertise, varying degrees of autonomy, biases, moods and personalities and often contradicting ideas as to how to operate. It is mostly because of the human element that outcomes are unpredictable.

Something can be complicated, for example a commercial airliner, brain surgery or launching a rocket, while not being complex. The complicated system or procedure can be mapped in a set of blueprints, planned and executed with precision. Complicated processes are repeatable and result in consistent outcomes. Complex systems are unpredictable. Complicated systems are one factor contributing to complexity.

Now that we have a sense of what complexity means, we can explore how to manage it. There are three dimensions, technical, interpersonal and procedural.


On the technical front, project complexity is manage by taking the time and effort to create a system, product or process that is well thought out and properly documented. Well thought out means applying design principles to ensure qualities like simplicity, flexibility, maintainability and enhanceability.
Proper documentation removes uncertainty by enabling common understanding using blueprints and other description of the complicated system from multiple perspectives. Documentation is often a controversial topic. Define and create the right documentation to minimize the uncertainty that comes when people lack a common understanding of a complicated system.


Whenever people come together to do anything, there is uncertainty - no one can fully predict the way an individual will behave. There are moods, traffic jams, biases and prejudices, attractions and aversions.

A key factor in project complexity is organization structure and the impersonation of the stakeholders. In our example there are multiple vendors, a PMO, client organizations with multiple special interests, executives, IT, external auditors and regulators and more. The interactions among them are complicated. The personalities make it complex. You really never know what an individual will do when under stress.

Managing on this level is to make sure the organization units interests and roles and responsibilities are well defined and mutually understood. Work out any overlaps or conflicts. Do your best to apply emotional intelligence to moderate the effects of personalities. Inform and train the players in the realities of emotional management, biases, expectations and conflict management and communication.


The third dimension to be addressed to manage complexity is the procedural. Procedures may be complicated or not, however, if they are not effectively defined, documented and managed, there will be unnecessary complexity and the uncertainty it implies.

Managing Complexity

All projects must be properly managed. The more complex the project, the greater the need for formal and precise management. It is the project manager's responsibility to assess project complexity, ensure that stakeholders understand the nature of complicated and complex systems, organizations and procedures and therefor are more likely to support the extra time and effort required and the risks involved.

Complex projects require a tool set and project management process as a platform for the planning and ongoing communication required to maintain control. The tools promote consistency, open communication and the right degree of formal project management discipline to fit the project’s needs.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

You may also like:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 5/25/2018
Updated on: