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What is a Complex Project?

Project Complexity

A project is considered to be as complex when it consists of various interdependent parts, each of which can get modified in various ways that are not completely predictable and can also have unpredictable influences on various other elements that could get modified by themselves. Complexity in projects depends upon individuals’ understanding and there are no limits to the understanding of people or organizations. So, it can be considered as a characteristic that is generally experienced in activities at the front line of knowledge or technology of people undertaking the activity. The tools and techniques of project management assist people and organizations in reducing the amount of complexity in projects by the fragmentation of complex activities into simpler ones, by which, it eliminates complexity out of the project and leave the resulting project in a simply complicated manner (Cook-Davies, 2011). As the complexity is increasing day by day in global economy, it ensures that projects in the present scenario might present their promoters and implementers with high degree of complexity (ICCPM, 2018). The projects with substantial amount of complexity are likely to have characteristics that are required to be managed in ways that extend beyond traditional tools and techniques of the project management (Kilpatrick, 2006).

The International Centre for Complex Project Management (ICCPM) conducted an international round table series on the management of complex projects in the year 2009. It described a situation where, a number of stakeholders having their own priorities and unique opinions implicitly avoided the actual situation for the purpose of gaining approval, to proceed with a venture that would not have been approved if the reality was known (Hayes & Bennett, 2011). The position paper has been written and international task force has been established to provide assistance in improving the knowledge and abilities of international community to deliver complex projects in best effective manner (ICCPM, 2018). Majority of organizations develop their own means to assess the complexity of projects. Some prefer assistance by appointment of suitable management or governance resources or by positioning it in project portfolios that are taken into consideration for funding purposes. Such assessment schemes consider factors which include technology, size, scale, supply chain, geography, time pressure, stakeholders and such others (Kilpatrick, 2006). Some of the organizations recognize that complexity depends on understanding; consider how familiar it is with particular type, scale or technology of the project.

This essay will examine different aspects of complexity of project management and will emphasize particularly on the causes, impact and management tools to be used in project complexity. The essay will exhibit the actual complexity within a project, which will include time constraints, uncertainty and such other things and it will also discuss about how project managers manage complexity in the projects considering the issues, causes and implications in this context. Various tools and techniques will also be reviewed in order to evaluate their relevance and effectiveness in providing assistance to the project managers, to deal with the complexity in projects in an effective manner .

The objective of a project or its outcome defines the management of a project and its differentiation with other projects. Different projects having similar goals differ from each other on the basis of how, they are executed and the degree of complexity exhibited to the project managers. Shenhar & Dvir (2007) explained that this context can be evaluated on the basis of complexity, uncertainty and degree of familiarity associated with the projects of the organization (Shenhar & Dvir, 2007). Among all the characteristics of a project, complexity has been considered to as highly significant and Wiliams (1999) affirmed that there are two fundamental reasons behind it which are, extensions or improvements of previous versions of project for example, addition of other features and stronger inter-relationships and to increase project restrictions considering deadlines and expectations regarding quick delivery of the projects (Williams T. M., 1999). On the other hand, Xia & Lee (2004) stated that complexity in the projects is associated with cost overruns, delays in projects, restrictions of functionalities in system and decrease of satisfaction among users (Xia & Lee, 2004).

Types of Complexity in Projects

In 2007, in an international meeting in the leadership of ICCPM, the complex projects have been described as those that possess certain characteristics such as uncertainty, ambiguity, emergent dynamic interfaces, and are under the influence of various political and external changes. The complex projects are those that overrun time and exceed the life cycles of the technologies that are involved or where significant integration issues also occur (Cook-Davies, 2011). Such projects can only be defined by benefit and value effect and not by the product initially (Yugue & Maximiano, 2012).

There are concepts of systems that are used to define important components of project complexity regarding interconnections as well as the interdependencies of the organizations and technologies. The complexity is considered as the root of the concept due to the factors determining the realization of a project that involves complexity within its design, along with implementation and development (Remington, Zolin, & Turner, 2009). It has been agreed upon by the researchers that complexity in the project is essential for the management of the project, due to the difficulties associated with the decision -making and achievements of goals. The dimensions that generate or influence the complexity of the projects are considered to be as important issues in this context. The classification can be done on the basis of two types of complexities in project i.e. organizational as well as technological that can be functionalized from the point of view of differentiation and interdependence.On the basis of analysis and classification of factors regarding project complexity, Remington,Zolin, & Turner (2009) categorized complexity in two groups i.e. dimension of complexity which refers to characterizing the nature or origin of complexity in projects and the other one include  factor of severity which refers to the extent severity of problem within the project.

According to Tatikonda & Rosenthal (2000), the concept of project complexity is related to the innovativeness of the project, its process of development and performance objectives as well as its technological interdependence (Tatikonda & Rosenthal, 2000). Geraldi & Adlbrecht (2007) suggested that management of complexity in projects should be an outcome of not only the characteristics of complexity but also of pattern. On this basis, the researchers developed a concept of “pattern complexity” which refers to the negligible convenient space of complexity.  Three types of complexity has been defined by the researchers which are Complexity of Faith which is related to uncertainty, Complexity of Fact (which is related to the extent of interdependence and simultaneous information and Complexity of Interaction which is related to the interfaces between the systems, people and organizations (Geraldi & Adlbrecht, 2007).  

Complex projects are generally managed with the contribution of project managers as well as organization, for which, transformational leadership concept is considered as highly appropriate. The utilization of transformational leadership assists in collective creativity of all the organizational members for the purpose of developing a system, which is appropriate for a particular project. It is also essential for establishing shared knowledge among all the people associated with the project as well as for the processes that have been modified in accordance with the requirements of the project. Through such a leadership strategy, one can effectively involve and hold positive influences in delivering the strategies, in the phase of complexity of projects (Kathleen, 2007). It can easily be achieved by the rigorous application of project management in such a manner that the fundamentals of a project manager expert in leadership skills, effective project control systems, best fit team members along with effective communication and human resource skills can be achieved. The project managers have to tackle a number of issues in order to successfully handle complexity in projects, which involve misaligned opinions of the stakeholders, tension between success of product and the project, public as well as political pressures, lack of understanding regarding non-technical risks and various others (Vidal & Marle, 2015). It requires effective management of the complex projects by the highly efficient project managers. 

Management of Complexity in Projects

The projects are utilized by the organizations in order to institute change in the organization. Various huge organizations having numerous stakeholders, compacted timescales as well as controlled budgets are few of the number of factors that make the projects difficult to be managed effectively. The initial requirement is to identify whether the project is simple, complex or only complicated in order to apply exactly the right approach to handle them effectively. In general, simple projects are easily understood, complicated projects are not that simple, but still, understandable while complex projects are not completely understandable but are rationally predictable. For example, in case of a car, its keys and their functions can be understood within no time and are very simple but understanding the functions of car might take time to understand so it is complicated but, to drive the car in traffic is complex because to drive in such a manner could take sufficient time to be understood (Shane, Strong, Gransberg, & Jeong, 2015).

The basic difference between the complicated systems and complex systems is the approach to be utilized to understand them. The simple and complicated systems can be understood by analysing their details but, understanding complex systems could not be made possible by the application of similar strategy of reductionism. However, some knowledge about the complexity in the project can be gained by analysing the operations of whole system.  Establishing distinction between complex and complicated projects is essential because the processes and procedures required for the purpose of managing the projects are different that depend on the nature of the project. Sargut & Mcgrath (2009) explained complex systems that are applied to the major projects. The example of simple project is to build an extension on a house by an experienced builder, as it is fairly predictable for them (Sargut & McGrath, 2009). It involves few interactions between some people and the issues can easily be resolved by one-on-one discussion. On the other hand, the complicated projects typically require much higher technical requirement and also requires input from numerous people. It involves more interacting components but, they can be operated in a noticeable pattern and major relocation project exist in this category. The complex projects are distinguished by the increasing number of variables that create influence on every particular stage of the process of decision- making. There are four characteristics of complexity which are multiplicity, interdependence, diversity and novelty. The multiplicity refers to the high level of interacting elements; interdependence refers to the individuals relying on performance or tasks of others in order to complete their own work; diversity refers to diverse variety of professional and technical backgrounds for the purpose of completion of projects; and novelty refers to the extent to which, the associated people of the project are familiar with the outcomes of the project (Jurgen Appelo, 2008).

The existence of greater the extent of each of these elements within a project,the more complex the project becomes. The linear sequence of the tasks is still required to be completed but, the inputs required from various experts cannot be predicted in accordance with the chart or a program. Instead of it, in order to take every major decision, series of interactions between a numbers of members associated with the project becomes essential for the purpose of evaluating the data that arises at every particular stage of the program. It becomes a challenge for a project manager to recognize the point wherein, the project shifts from complicated to complex. However, in the present scenario, all the above mentioned characteristics of complex project more or less exist in projects of all types whether simple, complicated or complex (Llewellyn, 2015).

Transformational Leadership in Complex Projects

Traditionally, the project management systems are likely to depend on sequential planning tools that might perform effectively for complicated projects, but are less suitable for the purpose of managing the complexity in projects. In order to manage complex projects, there is requirement of ability to understand and manage relationships.  With the increase in the complexity of the projects, it becomes a challenge for the project managers to consider a project not as a series of sequential tasks but more often as a system in which, all the people associated with the project are required to undertake their work in accordance with the defined set of behavioural norms (Naybour, 2010). The systems and processes that are required to improve the collective behaviour becomes essential for the success of the project. So, basically complexity in the project is closely associated with the ambiguity of project goal and method of delivery because complexity occurs due to the challenges of planning the project and most probably, the predicted change in the project. It requires a flexible approach towards the traditional working plan for the effective implementation of the plan and identification of clear distinction between simple, complicated and complex projects is also essential (Darnall & Preston, 2010).

The complexity in the projects might be due to various sources i.e. technical complexity, actor complexity and external complexity. In technical complexity, the interactions between various system components create interdependency in various tasks associated with the project. In actor complexity, various stakeholders involved with the project emphasize upon different dimensions and prefer opposing outcomes as well as the stakeholders might influence each other (Loch & Payne, 2011). In external complexity, the project might get associated with various market segments and can be influenced by the regulations in various regions or domains and can get affected by the standard defining authorities for example, ISO or might face various competitions  as well (Hass, Introducing The New Project Complexity Model. Part I., 2018). Thus, the complexity in the project might be due to every particular dimension for example, number of influencing stakeholders but it might also occur due to interactions across the dimensions for example, technical features might provoke stakeholder groups and actor groups might influence regulatory changes. Such a kind of cross-domain complexity might possibly be highly damaging as various well-known types of complexity but, is basically ignored by the management.

There are four categories or dimensions based on the source of complexity and might constitute a tool, to assist the stakeholders in the identification of nature of complexity in the project. The structural complexity is derived from traditional point of view based on the structure of information pathways. The sources of structural complexity are various interconnected and mutually dependent activities. The complexity in the form of non-linear feedback can occur due to complicated organizational as well as approval paths along with huge work breakdown structures with varieties of interacting activities (Macheridis & Nilsson, 2004). The technical complexity results due to technical as well as design challenges that can be more severe than expected and particularly, the issues that might not be resolved within a given timeframe. The directional complexity in the project arises due to uncertain or unshared goals. However, such complexities are common during the beginning of the project, it can also occur any time due to the changes of direction that results because of technical or environmental changes (Wood & Ashton, 2018). The temporal complexity occurs when projects become excessively subtle to the unpredictable changes because of the instable internal as well as external environment (Remington & Pollack, 2011). Though the nature of change can be predicted and the organizational or environmental impact might be identified, its potential impact on the project is difficult to be predicted and this type of complexity also increases with the duration of the project. So, this classification of complexity in projects provide an idea to predict the sources of complexity and approaches that might discourse the complexity in a best possible manner.  Despite various other classification systems such as uncertainty; the dimensions of complexity can have behavioural consequences which include lack of trustworthiness, ambiguity which worsen the perceptions of complexity in the projects. So, with exclusion of directional complexity, uncertainty is considered as a consequence instead of cause of complexity in project (Ameen & Jacob, 2018).

So, there are a number of contributory factors that create complexity in projects, out of which, few plays a significant role in increasing the complexity within the project. The details associated with the projects which include variety of variables as well as interfaces enhance the complexity in the projects. The ambiguity or uncertainty contributes to the complexity in the projects because of lack of awareness about the events and their causality creates confusions among all the people associated with the project and develops complexity (Caietti, 2016). It is because of the uncertainty that people handling projects become unable to pre-evaluate the actions and do not take preventive steps that results in complex projects. The unpredictability in the project refers to the inability to understand the causes and consequences of the issues arising in the project, which increases the complexity in the project. The dynamics means the rapid rate of changes in the project process and procedures and it is responsible for complexity in the projects. The social structure i.e. the numbers and types of interactions that exist within the project increases the complexity. The interrelationships refer to various interdependencies and interconnections that co-exist within projects, which makes projects actually highly complex (Cristóbal, 2017). Therefore, all these causes contribute to the complexity of the projects and are required to be taken into consideration by the project managers while dealing with the project complexity because all the causes do not influence the projects with similar intensity and their range or extent also vary depending on the circumstances dealing with the project.   

There are various environmental factors or properties that contribute to the project complexity.  The complexity in the project causes two basic difficulties which are causal ambiguity or interaction uncertainty. The causal ambiguity arises when different actions and parameters interact because of which, the impact of actions become difficult to be assessed such as an action might have multiple effects and a perceived effect might have several possible explanations. The complexity also causes interaction uncertainty even if each and every event is deterministic and predictable (ProofHub, 2018). Typically, the issues arising in the complex projects are fragmented into small components in order to make it manageable and, individuals or departments associated with the project are assigned with small fragments of the issues along with establishing coordination between the system design and defined interfaces. However, because of complex interactions existing among the variables and the fragments of issues, the decisions taken by the individuals influence each other, they cannot consider their decisions in the overall project decision- making. The design of the component evolves with time, the continuing problems and preferences in other groups make the requirements integrally unstable for a particular group (Wynne, 2017). Thus, the interactions create uncertainty for individuals as well for the overall project.

Besides being able to plan the project, managing resources and meeting deadlines, the ability to predict the challenges is also essential because it might hinder the progress of the project. There are various challenges that are expected to be met during the progression of the project. The major challenge in front of the project managers or the associated members is not being aware of the outcomes of the project. The poorly defined goals and objectives might fail the project because lots of confusions occur due to lack of knowledge about the aspects related to the project (Azim, 2010). The initiation of a project without clear objectives, specific direction and well established plan might fail the project, so it is suggested that clear goals and effective planning of project should strictly be taken into consideration (RSM UK Group, 2016). In complex projects, many a times, project managers and members associated with the project have to deal with unrealistic expectations of their clients as well as stakeholders. In addition, project timelines do not also met because of the unrealistic initial deadlines. With the increasing competition, unrealistic or unachievable targets are set instead of being driven by planned business requirements due to which, members make efforts to become suitable to the already set requirements (Vidal & Marle, 2015). The project managers can manage various issues and handle deadlines of the project with perfect planning, alternative analysis and effective communication of the actual progress with the associated members and the major decision makers in the project (Crawford & Hoffman, 2011).

Many a times, a project is initiated in a certain specific manner but with its progress, it takes different direction and get diverted from its pathway possibly because of the expansion of project getting diverted from the planned goals and objectives. It becomes difficult for the project managers and associated members to predict new changes. So, in order to determine the goals of the project i.e. costs, schedule or quality through systematic process with proper planning and understanding of the customer requirements and realistic assumptions related to the resource availability and deadlines, should be made in order to achieve quality results (Williams, 2017).

Another issue in complex projects might be insufficient team skills because majority of times, members are assigned with the project as per their availability and not on the basis of their expertise. Lack of skills and sufficient training put the development of the project at risk and members become unable to meet the challenges arising in performing the assigned tasks (Carver & Maylor, 2011). So, required training and development of skills and expertise might most possibly enhance their knowledge and fulfil the skill gaps. Furthermore, poor communication is also considered as one of the huge challenges in the management of complex projects. The communication skills are known to be as the greatest asset of the project manager as clear communication is required to give instructions, ask questions or to seek information. In order to determine proper communication flows for the members associated with the project, an effective way should be developed to inform the project manager about the information requirements (Stead, 2010).

Many a times, the projects do not progress as planned because of which, risk management is one of the major issues to be dealt with by the project managers. The risks such as uncertainty of finances, hidden errors in the project plan or unknown factors might impact the success of the project. However, it is impossible to predict potential risks in the project, strategic planning and gathering of information provide an idea to the project managers to predict the parts of the project which might possibly fail. There are other issues as well such as issues and conflicts among the project team members are also to be dealt with by the project managers. So, the best way to eliminate such issues within a team is to create a positive working environment and foster feelings of unison and teamwork among all the members. All these issues hinder the effective progression of the project but, by implementing the suggestions, can eliminate these issues and assist the project managers in successful completion of the project. 

There are various tools or techniques to aid project managers in managing the complex projects and they are considered to be as highly effective. Tools and techniques are considered as essential component for the management of complex projects which should be used precisely and can make the management easier and highly effective (Maserang, 2002). It is the contribution of project managers, software for managing projects along with various project management aspects that support in managing the projects become easier by saving time as well as cost. The tools and techniques that assist in planning the management of complex project include CPM, PERT, KANBAN, and Gantt chartas well astask dependencies. Gantt chart is one of the basic tools among a number of project management tools and techniques that can be utilized for improving the project processes and optimizing its efficiency (Sinnaps, 2018). The Gantt chart is a type of chart that has been devised to plan the sequence of activities of project that leads towards its completion, which determines the timeline as well as the requirements of time, till the completion of the project. This tool is considered to be as highly beneficial if it is utilized in an appropriate manner. Gantt flow is an easy tool to be utilized, visually appealing and an updated tool that assists the project till its completion and to achieve success with the assistance of various project management tools and techniques, which include PERT and CPM. It calculates optimized work path for project plan on the basis of task dependencies, extents, days as well as milestones. Whenever a change is introduced or anything is added, the Gantt chart get updated automatically to fit with the new plan of project and all the members associated with the project get informed as well. So, Gantt chart allows the members to understand the project comprehensively and increases the efficiency of the project also. It allows easy observation of the critical path of the project, task dependencies, project bottlenecks as well as the comfortable activities which can also be postponed if required for effective prioritization.

PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) is used to calculate actual time required to finish individual tasks as well as entire project and it facilitates team coordination and helps the organization in becoming more effective. Similarly, Critical Path is also used to help envisioning the timeline of the project and it allows to produce divergent time estimates also, which include shortest possible time taken by task, most probable time in any task or project and maximum time expected to be taken if estimated plan fails. PERT is calculated backward from static end date since deadlines of the contract cannot be adjusted (SHRP, 2014). It serves as a warning system of task dependencies and is significant for complex projects wherein, various tasks depend on each other for completion of project. PERT and CPM, in association with Gantt chart, assists in visualizing all the activities of the project clearly, along with their interdependencies on each other.

The vertical order of activities in the Gantt chart defines the criticality of certain activity and using CPM tool, the criticality of each task can be identified by the height at which it is placed in the Gantt chart. Through CPM, critical path in project can be easily identified, updated easily, and bottlenecks in the project can easily be identified and avoided. The task or activity interdependence occurs commonly in complex projects and are significant for the successful completion or failure of the project. By reflecting upon task relationships, appropriate tools can be applied in order to manage them effectively. Similarly, KANBAN is a tool used in project management that helps in monitoring and managing the projects and it emphasizes on continuous delivery and avoiding excessive burden on team members of the project (Hass, 2017). Kanban is a tool which is utilized in management of complex projects and helps the members to work together in an effective manner. It is a technique used for planning of project and is based on three main principles, which are visualization of workflow, balancing the work in progress to avoid over-commitment by the members as well as enhancing the flow of progress in project. In this way, all these tools and techniques are highly significant for the efficient management of complex projects. 


After having an in-depth analysis of the complex projects, various aspects of project management complexity have been examined. It has been found that establishing clear distinction between simple, complicated and complex project is essential to determine what kind of tactics, tools and procedures should be applied to deal with a project. It has also been identified that there is not set criteria about the complexity of project, however, there are few perceptions which exhibit complexity in projects and those are interconnection, uncertainty, time and money constraints and various others. It has also been found that complexity depends upon individual understanding and there are no limits to the understanding of the groups of people or organizations. The review of researches conducted by various researchers revealed that complexity in projects are due to complexity in faith, facts and interaction which develops overall complexity in the projects.

The complexity in projects arises due to technical reasons, actors, and other external factors. Various other characteristics such as uncertainty, dimensions of complexity, lack of trustworthiness, and ambiguity also exacerbate the perceptions of complexity in the projects. There are various issues that arises due to complexity in projects which are management of deadlines, resolving issues and conflicts between the members associated with the project, effective plan and well-established goals and objectives. In addition to it, if the projects are dealt with by the project managers in a well-planned and efficient manner in collaboration with all other team members, the successful completion of project becomes more obvious. There are various tools and techniques of project management that can contribute towards reducing the amount of complexity in the project. With the use of these tools, technologies and strategies, project managers become able to give their full efficiency and exploiting the efficiency of human, physical and technological resources to their fuller extent for the success of the project.The tools and techniques that assist in planning the management of complex project include CPM, PERT, KANBAN, and Gantt chart as well as task dependencies. This tool is considered to be as highly beneficial if it is utilized in an appropriate manner. In this context, Gantt chart is considered as an easy tool for visually appealing and an updated tool that assists the project till its completion and in achieving success with the other project management tools and techniques such as PERT and CPM. They assist in visualizing all the activities of the project clearly along with each of its interdependencies. Similarly, Kanban is used for monitoring and managing the projects and it emphasize on continuous delivery and avoiding excessive burden on team members of the project. Therefore, with the help of all these tools and techniques, project managers and associated team members can manage the project in a best possible manner and bottlenecks identified can also be avoided during the initial phase of the project. 


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