Some sources of complexity in programs/projects


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia


I recently published an article in this journal on the nature of programs (Stretton 2017a), in which I pointed out that, contrary to the way they are so often depicted in the literature, programs are not necessarily large or complex.

However, in the second edition of the Gower Handbook of Programme Management (Lock & Wagner 2016) most of the contributions were concerned with large complex programs/projects, and this is certainly an area of major concern in the program/project literature at large. Effective management of large complex programs/projects is undoubtedly very difficult, and this topic fully deserves the increased attention it appears to be attracting in the literature.

I have had little direct personal experience on large complex projects, and have therefore been somewhat hesitant about addressing this topic. However, Bob Prieto’s articles in this journal on large complex projects, and his book on a Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects (Prieto 2015) particularly attracted my attention. Amongst other things, I noted that he listed no less than 66 sources of complexity in large engineering and construction programs.

The new edition of the Gower Handbook also has substantial material on program/ project complexity, and its sources. So, I had the notion of comparing contributions from these two publications, plus some others, to try and get some alignment of various sources of complexity, and perhaps a combined checklist of sources of complexity. That is what this article attempts to do.

In all, I found eight relatively recent contributions on such sources. I discuss each of these in turn, and then map seven of them onto the most detailed listing of the eight, which is that of Prieto 2015. This is essentially an exploratory article, so we will see what emerges from this quite extensive mapping exercise.


By far the largest list of sources of complexity on programs/projects that I know of comes from Prieto 2015, who offers a list of sixty six such sources in his Table 2-2. It should be emphasised that Prieto was particularly concerned with what he calls gigaprograms, by which he means programs with constructed values in excess of $10 billion (US), in the engineering and construction sector. In his words (p.37),

I have chosen this subset of projects since I believe that many of the particular challenges we see at this scale and level of complexity exist more broadly in large complex projects but are perhaps not as easily seen.

Prieto goes on to point out that, with gigaprograms, new sources of complexity emerge that are not typically encountered in what he calls traditional scale programs. However, I have chosen to include all Prieto’s sources (which are shown later in Figures 9, 10, 11 & 12), because they form a very detailed, inclusive, and hopefully useful, checklist of sources of complexity in programs/ projects.

Figure 1 shows the seven main categories used by Prieto, and the number of detailed sources of complexity in each category. (I have changed the order from Prieto’s Table 2-2).


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Editor’s note: This series of articles 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 accepting 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/