Complication, complexity and uncertainty in the program/project context


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia




In an article in the last issue of this journal (Stretton 2017b) I was concerned with sources of complexity in the program/ project context. I broadly compared sources of complexity from eight different contributors, and attempted to align them under some broad categories, to come up with a draft basic checklist of such sources.

In the course of assembling that article, I came across three authors who made a sharp distinction between program/project complexity on the one hand, and complication on the other. This distinction appeared to me to be rather important when it comes to assessing the relevance of “traditional” project management standards to the management of complex projects. In following this up, a few associated connections emerged which I also found interesting, as will be recounted.

This rather exploratory article first discusses the above distinction, and a complication arising there-from. After noting how several authors relate complexity with uncertainty, we go on discuss some causal elements and management issues relating to program/project uncertainty, and thence, albeit indirectly, to complexity.


Distinguishing between complication and complexity

It is first noted that the two dictionaries consulted, namely The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and The Macquarie Concise Dictionary, do not appear to make any real distinction between complication and complexity. However, some writers on project management have found it useful to make such a distinction in the project/ program context, and we will now look at three of these.

Cooke-Davies 2016:263 has made the following distinction between complexity and complication in the context of programs.

It’s worth distinguishing between ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’. Something can be said to be complicated if it is composed of many interconnected and interrelated parts. Complexity, on the other hand, is related not only to the number of moving parts and how they relate to each other, but also the predictability of each part (and thus of the ability of the pieces to be melded together in ways that are foreseeable).

It is first noted that Cooke-Davies definition of complicated corresponds with the two dictionary’s definitions of both complicated and complex. Second, if I am interpreting the above quotation correctly, Cooke-Davies is saying that program complexity typically has associated elements of uncertainty.

Hayes 2016 also makes a distinction between complication and complexity. He says that Australia’s CSIRO identifies two properties that set a complex system apart from one that is merely complicated, as follows:

  • emergence – the appearance of behaviour that could not be anticipated from a knowledge of the parts of the system alone;
  • self-organization – where no external controller or planner is engineering the appearance of the emergent features

As defined here, emergence also appears to have the element of uncertainty – here associated with complex systems, and thence with complex programs/projects.

Parth 2016 also distinguishes between the two when he says that “Complexity is more than just being complicated”. He goes on to list seven sources of complexity (which have previously been listed in Stretton 2017b, Figure 7). Most of these sources of complexity have obvious and significant elements of uncertainty.

Parth’s listing was one of eight listings shown in Stretton 2017b, which in total covered some eighty sources of complexity. Most of these have significant, but varying, elements of uncertainty.

I will return to the topics of complexity and uncertainty shortly. Focusing for the moment on the difference between complication and complexity, the above three authors make a clear distinction between the two. However, this distinction is not necessarily as straight-forward as it might appear. Prieto 2015 says that such a distinction becomes invalid with very large programs/projects, as now discussed.


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Editor’s note: This paper is by Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon), Life Fellow of AIPM (Australia), a pioneer in the field of professional project management and one of the most widely recognized voices in the practice of program and project management.   Long retired, Alan is still tackling some of the most challenging research and writing assignments; he is a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal. See his author profile below.



About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton
is one of the pioneers of modern project management. He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA. In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects. He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France). Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992. He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996. He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management. He has published over 170 professional articles and papers. Alan can be contacted at [email protected].

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.