Leading Enormous and Complex Projects or Programs

The standard development methodology fails unique, enormously big and complex projects



Charles Villanyi Bokor

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


Lessons to learn

  1. Extremely large system development projects (the technology part of a business solution that is to facilitate and/or enable a vision or a new paradigm) are not only complicated but are also complex.
  2. Most organizations do not know how to successfully develop enormously large and consequently complex application systems, but because they think they know, they attempt them and hence, fail them by design.
  3. In order to develop enormously large and consequently complex projects, we have to reduce their size, use a unique customized for the project methodology, and project governance structure, that reflects the organization’s capability, its capacity, the project and the people involved.
  4. We may not be ready to accept (beside the need for climate change, or gun control) that the current system development methodology needs significant changes when used to develop extremely large and consequently complex projects.


In the last two decades, the size of many system development projects grew and exceeded all upper bounds. These enormous and complex projects (programs) have unmanageably large number of: functions and resulting lines of code; development teams comprised of people with different skills; stakeholders; and different and changing requirements that define the expected outputs. These projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take many years to develop and deploy and impact the organization in such a fundamental way that most operational people resist them. They are analogous to the most exciting concept in the universe and so, we will call these totally overwhelming, all consuming, centers of the organization’s focus, Black Hole Projects (BHP). [7- Villanyi Bokor, 2017]

Developing BHPs with a standard development methodology that is focused on producing outputs based on requested requirements, under a governance structure that is slow and mostly administrative, has proven to result in outcomes that are less successful than desired. BHPs take significantly longer to develop than planned in the initial estimate of the schedule, cost more than initially estimated and do not deliver the critical success criteria of the vision set at the start. “According to a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior executives… the success rate of major change initiatives [BHPs] is only 54 percent”. [A- Katzenbach, 2014] According to this, only 54% of the BHPs deliver their expected outcome. According to empirical evidence, only the exceptional BHP is successful, often due to luck.

In short, most organizations do not know how to develop BHPs that are built to enable a new paradigm, but as they think they know, they attempt them and hence, fail them by design. The worldwide cost of failing very, very large projects is between $3 and $6.2 trillion per year. This is unconscionable.

The most significant cause of such poor results (we suspect) includes: our tolerance for even smart people, to do stupid things; the (enormously large) size of these projects and the resulting complexity; the long development time scheduled; inadequate pre-development problem and business requirements definition; an output focused requirements management process; and a project management plan that overlooks the organizational capacity (due to the portfolio of projects already underway) and capability (limited by the available skill sets) to undertake such projects. In other words, using a methodology that was not designed for BHPs, in its standard (i.e. not unique to the organization and the project) form, and a project governance structure that does not support the project’s needs.

As a project’s probability of success varies inversely with its size, we need to limit the non-vital functionality we develop in order to reduce the size, complexity and length of time needed to develop these mega-projects. We must assemble the solution out of smaller projects rather than subdivide the BHP into sub-projects and use a customized, unique and iterative BHP development methodology, project specific governance structure that empowers and responsibilizes Business Analysts and calls to replace the Project Manager with a Project Leader.


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How to cite this article:  How to cite this paper: Bokor, C. V. (2018). Leading Enormous and Complex Projects or Programs; PM World Journal, Vol. VII, Issue VI – June. Retrieved from https://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/pmwj71-Jun2018-Bokor-leading-enormous-complex-projects-or-programs-featured-paper.pdf

About the Author

Charles Villanyi Bokor

Ottawa, Canada


Charles Villanyi Bokor
is a Strategic Management Consultant focused on Leading to Better Decisions. Principal activities include Business Transformation, Problem Project Recovery & Leadership, Strategic Planning. Charles works mostly in Ottawa but has successfully completed assignments in Florida, Wales, Malaysia, Sweden and Australia, and was key-note speaker in Johannesburg South Africa and Victoria BC. Formal education includes an Executive Development and Diploma in Management (McGill University), M.Sc. Mathematics (Université de Grenoble, and U. de Montréal) and B. Sc. Mathematics (Concordia University). He was: Program Director of the Corporate Performance Management Program, Sprott, Carleton; Director of IS/IM at Royal Trust; and at Northern Telecom; CMC; CMC Board Member; PMI-OVOC Board Member; Governor of ICCC; is ITIL Certified and a TBS Independent Project Reviewer. Charles can be contacted at villanyiboko[email protected]