Advances in Project Management Series: The Complexity Dialogues: ‘Complicated’ and ‘Complex’ – the management difference


Prof Darren Dalcher, Moderator

Director, National Centre for Project Management

University of Hertfordshire, UK 

Panelists: Dr. Kaye Remington, Australia

Reverend Michael Cavanagh, Ireland


In this article we resort to a different type of discussion about the pervasive issue of complexity. The article features a dialogue that attempts to distil our knowledge about complexity in projects and its resulting implications and challenges. The participants are Dr. Kaye Remington, Revd. Michael Cavanagh, and the moderator is Professor Darren Dalcher.

Darren:  Complexity is increasingly viewed as a common feature of life in a technology-infused era. It often means different things to different people and can be said to be in the eye of the beholder. However, one of the fascinating aspects of complexity is the interaction and interconnection between the simple and the complex, and the richness of patterns and ways of thinking that it enables.

Complexity is itself a complex notion. The Oxford Dictionary defines complexity as the state or quality of being intricate or complicated thereby mixing the concepts of complicated and complex. Managers are increasingly called upon to deliver complex projects in environments that are reckoned to be complex and hence the distinction between the two is important. In order to advance the discussion we need to make sense of the difference between complicated and complex, especially in the context of projects.

Michael: If you know what you’re up against, projects might be ‘complicated’, but that’s not the same thing as ‘complex’. We can manage ‘Complicated’ using the standard ‘First Order’ PM toolset.  But Project Complexity increases exponentially against unpredictability, and it demands a ‘Second Order’ management approach – applying systems thinking, experiential learning, appropriate contracting and most of all, flexible and courageous leadership.

In themselves, these are not complex – just different – demanding a different set of behaviours and personalities.  Unfortunately, in most cases, they aren’t adopted until the first order methods are proved not to work, and by then it’s too late.

Kaye: Many people now acknowledge that some projects are beyond complicated. Complicated projects are challenging and very difficult but ultimately able to be delivered in a form that is acceptable to the key stakeholders, even if the final format has digressed substantially from original expectations. Complex projects are more than just difficult to manage because it is not just about getting the right brains together around the table and nutting out the solution to a challenging problem. That kind of project stimulates thinking and motivates people to work together and achieve a result. In some cases problems are intractable, there are no known or acceptable solutions, or if there are there are so many competing viewpoints that there is a very low potential for satisfactory compromise. Projects like these remain locked in and often don’t get beyond the definition stage. If they are jettisoned into implementation the result is often useless and costly.

One of the major issues confronting those of us who are interested in these intractable or complex projects is – how do we know we are there?


To read entire article (click here)

Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK.  Series editor is Prof Darren Dalcher, editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  For more on Gower project management, visit http://www.gowerpublishing.com/default.aspx?page=2063.

About the Authors 

darren-dalcherflag-ukDarren Dalcher, PhD 

Author, Series Editor 

Director, National Centre for Project Management

University of Hertfordshire, UK

Darren Dalcher, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.  Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond.  He is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board.  Prof Dalcher is an academic editorial advisor for the PM World Journal.  He can be contacted at [email protected]. 

flag-ukflag-irelandmichael-cavanaghRevd. Michael Cavanagh, MSc



Michael Cavanagh has been an independent for over twenty years in a number of business sectors. In recent years, the focus of his consulting activity has been the use of systems thinking techniques to perform ‘forensic’ analysis of major project failure and the ways in which lessons can be derived and corrective process improvement implemented, deploying a combination of Soft Systems, the Viable Systems Model and a number of tools and methods developed specifically for the task. His book, published by Gower in 2011, introduced ‘2nd Order’ programme management concepts and the need and justification for their application to highly complex projects. The book is aimed at both practitioners and senior sponsoring management. He has also recently published two Kindle eBooks, ‘Ethical Issues in Complex Project and Engineering Management’, and ‘Project Complexity Assessment’.  Michael is an ordained Anglican priest in the Church of Ireland and is currently responsible for the churches of the Kenmare and Dromod Union, Co. Kerry. Michael can be reached at [email protected]. 

flag-australiadr-kaye-remingtonDr Kaye Remington


Kaye Remington, PhD is author of Leading Complex Projects (Gower Publishing, 2010) and co-author of Tools for Complex Projects (Gower Publishing, 2007). With over 25 years of senior management and project experience she is also a former Director of the Post-graduate Project Management Program at the University of Technology Sydney. Kaye now runs a small consulting firm that works internationally to help organisations to develop their capacity to deliver complex strategy and projects.  Kaye Remington can be contacted at [email protected] or visit her website at www.elefsis.org.