Jan 2017
Meilenstein – Der Projektmanagement-Blog

Project Complexity – Accept, Manage and Reduce

Although complexity on projects has always existed, projects continue to become more and more complex for a variety of different reasons – of which we will explore just a few. The purpose of this short article is to make you think a little differently about 1) how you think about projects, 2) your role as a Project Manager and 3) the approaches, methods and tools by which you manage projects.


For many years now, better, faster and cheaper seem to be the expected norm rather than the exception in order for businesses to operate in today’s competitive environment. The Speed by which technology changes occur is also driving more complexity into the system. In addition, stakeholders now have a different expectation about the continuous delivery of results and would rather see the iterative delivery of sub-components on an ongoing basis.

While linear project management plans still have their place, traditional project management methods are not evolving fast enough and in a way that keeps up with changing business environments, markets, technologies and product & service offerings. The increase in interactions and dependencies require Project Managers to utilize a variety of PM methods across the variation in projects that they might be expected to manage.

How do we define Projects and Programs?

Now, Project Managers are also assuming responsibility to better align projects to strategy and ensure the realization of benefits beyond the traditional hand-off of deliverables – which often can include overcoming cultural or organizational change to make deployment even possible.

Maybe it’s not even realistic to think that we should be distinguishing between programs and projects. If projects are aligned more to strategy and benefits realization, maybe programs are then just larger scales of more complex projects where the projects within the program are just larger and more complex work packages. Of course this depends on how we define a program vs. a project in the first place.

Roles and Tasks need to change

Another gap continues to be the lack of maturity of project portfolio management capabilities and the alignment of these capabilities to organizational governance. This also includes closer partnerships with the business, the customer and the end user by the project team.

As data analytics capabilities and tools continue to evolve, Project Managers need to utilize better forecasting, modeling and predictive data to overcome complex issues.

The role of the project sponsor is also changing: We can no longer look to a single person as the overall sponsor. Many projects now require sponsorship and advocacy at all levels in order to be successful, including sponsorship at all levels within the project team itself.

Recommendation 1: Accept complexity and deal with it

We have to accept the fact that the nature of the environment that we now work within is given, that complexity exists within all projects and that Project Managers should now be expected to identify, minimize and effectively manage complexity.

Various approaches can be used to assess complexity on projects. The Boeing Company’s project complexity assessment categories projects into four different levels and complexity evaluation is based on the following 16 factors:

  1. Alignment to Business Strategy
  2. Sponsorship – Visibility Requirements
  3. Urgency
  4. Process/Technology Maturity
  5. Business Case
  6. Project Statement of Work (SOW)/Requirements/Success Criteria
  7. Interrelationships: Systems/Organizations/Disciplines
  8. Organizational Impact
  9. Cost (Estimated) to Execute the Project in Dollars or Labor Hours
  10. Benefit (Cost savings/reductions/avoidance – Estimated)
  11. Resource Availability
  12. Duration to Complete the Project from Initiation to Completing Implementation (Estimated)
  13. Roles, Responsibility and Accountability
  14. Location/Language/ Culture of People Performing Tasks/Activities
  15. Number of Deliverables (Estimated)
  16. Number of Tasks/Activities (Estimated).

In the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) "Navigating Complexity – A Practice Guide" from 2014, complexity is categorized by Human Behavior, System Behavior and Ambiguity. In addition, the PMI Practice Guide lists 48 potential aspects of complexity as part of an assessment questionnaire.

Recommendation 2: Establish criteria for choosing your methodology and project team

In addition to the standard complexity assessment, project managers should also now establish criteria to help them determine how to select the best PM methodology to utilize for a given project.

When selecting a Project manager and the project team members, work harder to better align the capability needs of the project and business result to the capabilities of the PM team.

Recommendation 3: "Repack" your toolbox more often

Understanding the things that make a project complex will minimize risk while at the same time improve the likelihood for success.

The Project Managers tool box in itself is more complex and no longer limited to only various process, tools & templates but should also now include: benefits realization processes, analytics capabilities, and a multitude of PM methodologies that the new generation of Project managers needs to understand, scale and apply.


Expect that complexity is here to stay and expect that the things that make a project complex today will be different than the things that make a project complex tomorrow.

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