Defining Complexity for Practitioners


By Mark Phillips

Michigan, USA

Complexity affects project performance. There is no doubt that projects get to be complex at a certain point and we need to do something about it. But as practitioners, when asked to give some indication of when a project will be complex the best we can often muster is to paraphrase a US Judge and respond “I know it when I see it.” This kind of definition makes it difficult to take action to address complexity and even harder to prepare stakeholders for what complexity entails. I’d like to propose a practitioner focused definition that can help us prepare stakeholders for complexity and do something about it, so we can deliver successful projects. The definition is framed in terms of the difference between complexity and risk, and between complexity management compared to risk management. This framework comes directly from a question sparked by a recent presentation by Stephen Hayes, MD and CEO of the International Centre on Complex Project Management at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

The key differentiator is the concept of Orientation toward Uncertainty. Orientation toward Uncertainty is how the organization managing the project environment fundamentally approaches uncertainty. Risk and Risk Management is a particular type of orientation. It assumes that all drivers of uncertainty can be identified. Because of that, a reasonable estimate of potential outcomes can be made and consequently, a finite set of plans can be identified and accounted for prior to the potential outcomes occurring. Further, the finite set of plans have clear tradeoffs such that any utility maximizing organization will always make the same choice among the plans, given the same utility function.  For example, it becomes clear at some point that you may need to expand scope to account for a foreseeable risk. It is also clear that by choosing to expand scope, you’ll need to increase budget. Therefore, if you are an organization seeking to get the most scope and account for the foreseeable risk, you’ll choose the option for expanding scope and increasing budget. Reserve for that extra budget will be put into the project’s overall budget.

This organization is using a management approach which is oriented toward certainty. Mind you, it allows for unknowns and even unknown unknowns. But there is a fundamental belief that the unknowns can be managed and the path for managing the unknowns can be defined at some point before the unknown occurs. Further, actions can be decided upon and taken ahead of time to prepare for those unknowns, such as adding budget.


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About the Author

pmwj23-jun2014-Phillips-AUTHOR PHOTOMark Phillipsflag-usa

Michigan, USA

Mark Phillips is the author of Reinventing Communication, a book about project management, system design and complexity from Gower Publishing. Mark is an accomplished CEO and thought leader with a passion for Project Communication.

For over 17 years he has built a project management software company and consultancy, serving clients including multinational automotives, web start-ups, global telecoms and financial service providers. He led product development on a cutting-edge U.S. Army Research Lab program.

His work has appeared in publications including C|Net, eWeek, the Small Wars Journal, Project Manager Today, the Measurable News and the APM blog. He delivers keynotes, seminars and workshops worldwide. He is a board member of the College of Performance Management. Mark holds a Masters in Applied Economics from University of Michigan and B.Sc. [Econ] from the London School of Economics. He is a certified Project Management Professional.  Mark can be contacted through the ReinventingCommunication website.

Information about his book Reinventing Communication can be found on the Gower Publishing website or on Amazon.