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Is my Project Complex or Simple; That is the Question?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 27th June 2011

The Association for Project Management (APM) has just launched a new standard the APM Registered Project Professional (RPP).

It is a pan-sector standard for those able to demonstrate the capabilities of a responsible leader, who have the ability to manage a complex project and use appropriate tools, processes and techniques. See for more details.

However the use of the word complex is causing much debate amongst project management practitioners. Is my project complex? Have you ever managed a project that was not complex? Every project manager I know considers that they manage a complex project. As the opposite of complex is simple, would you need a project manager for a simple project? The APM refer to complex and non complex projects, but what does a non-complex project look like and what do the APM mean by a complex project?
There are two answers to this question; the first rooted in academic research into the factors which drive project complexity and the second is the guidance used by the APM to decide if a project is of sufficient complexity to meet the level required for the APM Registered Project Professional (RPP) standard. If you want to just understand the latter then you can jump straight to the APM spreadsheet for assessing project complexity at APM Project Complexity Assessment Tool.

The Academic Stuff

Most of the academic work on project complexity is rooted in the now famous and much quoted work by J. R. Turner and R. A. Cochrane back in 1993. In a paper called “Goals-and-methods matrix: coping with projects with ill defined goals and/or methods of achieving them” they identified two primary factors which characterise the different types of projects. These two factors are

  1. The degree of clarity with which the project goals can be defined.
  2. The knowledge of the methods (technical, managerial, commercial and legal) which need to be followed to deliver the project.

So put simply lack of clarity over what is to be delivered and (or) the means by which it will be delivered leads to increasing complexity. More recently it has been recognised (Cooke-Davies, Terry Cicmil, Svetlana; Crawford, Lynn; Richardson, Kurtt, 2007) that complexity is also influenced by the culture of the organisation(s) involved in the project, interactions between the organisations involved in the project and the quality of communications. These organisational issues also introduce ambiguity and misunderstanding which in turn increase complexity. (This is quite a simplification of what is a difficult paper to follow; a simpler summary is available on the blog Eight to Late. More recently, in 2007, Harvey Maylor in his paper Step Back From Chaos, identified five areas that determine project complexity including the clarity of the mission, complexity of the organisation, delivery consistency, stakeholder and team factors. Significantly he identified that some of these factors are static and other that are dynamic. Static factors might include the form of contract under which the project is delivered whereas dynamic factors might relate the relationship between the customer and supplier, which as we all know can change with time. Interestingly the solution proposed by Harvey is to actively reduce the complexity of the project. Which nicely leads us to the assessment criteria used by the APM as part of their RPP application process?

APM Project Complexity Assessment Criteria

As part of a RPP application candidates have to demonstrate they have evidence the leadership and managerial qualities required to deliver a complex project. Necessarily for any professional assessment process these have to be based on clearly defined criteria. The roots of these criteria, below, are clearly based on the academic work discussed above.
1 ) Ambiguity of project objectives including difficulty describing the desired success criteria. If you can’t easily describe the project objectives then the complexity increases because of the difficulty progressing towards a poorly defined end goal. For example a project to reduce cost by the introduction of a new automated system cannot be clearly specified until the existing processes have been understood and the changes required have been identified.
2 ) Stakeholders / Interested Parties. Diversity of view amongst stakeholders or interested parties
can generate complexity in agreeing the project goals and execution method. Conflict between key stakeholders can significantly increase the challenge of resolving issues. Typically this can be conflict between the different parties within the customer and the supplier over the desired project outcome or implementation process. Such conflict can make it extremely difficult for the supplying project manager to understand and meet the customer’s requirements. This is especially true if powerful and influential stakeholders are involved in the project.
3 ) Cultural or social context can significantly increase not only in multi-nation projects but those which have to adapt to the diverse cultures within multiple organisations and / or stakeholder groups. This introduces not only logistical difficulties associated with time zones but also misunderstanding about the intentions and working practices of the different parties.
4 ) The degree of innovation is clearly a driver of complexity. This represents what Turner calls the method. If the technical solution required is unknown at the outset then resolving these technical issues as the project progresses will significantly increase the complexity. The same is true for any non-technical innovations such as novel financial, legal or organisational structures; these too tend to increase complexity.
5 ) Project structure and co-ordination based on the number of parties and different approaches to project management in the delivery organisation. The difficulty co-ordinating these parties can result in increased complexity and the number of communications channels and vested interests.
6 ) Project Organisation and the number of different and diversity of delivery organisations can increase the level of project complexity. This is especially when organisations which make up the project team have divergent cultures, behaviours and objectives.
7 ) Leadership, team working and decision making with a rapidly changing team or one that is unable to take decision can ratchet up the complexity, as key decisions are deferred and our unpicked by the project team. Conflicts or frequent changes in project leaderships can also introduce complexity to the project as it adapts the changing leadership.
8 ) Resources and the constraints associated with availability and restrictions on use can increase complexity. These resource constraints can be both physical (access to the work location), geographical or human. This can also include any novel financing arrangements for the project, which can increase the complexity of the approach,
9 ) Project Risk and especially the inability to predict or foresee risk, leads to a more complex project because the plans and contingencies required to manage the risks cannot be established in advance.
10 ) Project Methods and Tools required to control the project can in themselves introduce further complexity into the way the project is run especially if very little support is available from the host organisations.
It is interesting to reflect on the contrast between the list produced by the APM and the simpler approaches to the definition of project complexity derived out of academic research. The two approaches result in similar models and both provide an indication of the areas that project managers need to address to reduce the overall project complexity.
Test your project against the APM Complexity Criteria and please feel free to contact Parallel Project Training for advice and guidance on how APM Registered Project Professional can develop your capability to deliver complex projects.

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