Understanding and Managing Your Project’s Complexity

One of the main reasons technology projects fail so often is their (underestimated) complexity.

Managing this complexity should be an urgent concern for any organization doing large technology projects.

Stephen Carver, Senior Lecturer at Cranfield School of Management created a simple but very useful tool to assess and help you manage project complexity. .

But before we look at the tool and how you can use it, we have to start with some results of the research of Stephen and his team about what complexity actually is.

Not complexity, but complexities…

There is more than one dimension to complexity. Instead of a binary understanding of complexity in projects (it is complex, or it is not) you should be thinking in three dimensions of complexity:

> Structural complexity
> Sociopolitical complexity
> Emergent complexity

Structural Complexity

Structural complexity is associated with size, variety, breadth of scope, the level of interdependence of people or tasks, or the pace of the work.

It is the most easily recognized of the complexities by both practitioners and researchers and is also described as complicatedness or the level of interconnectedness.

The complexity associated with pace can be particularly challenging as the faster the pace, the greater the resource intensity and therefore the more complex the project is to manage. Luckily just for a limited time.

This may be the case, for instance, in a project developing a new piece of consumer electronics. See my article on Cost of Delay that explains why the pace in consumer electronic projects is typically so high.

Sociopolitical Complexity

Sociopolitical complexity is associated with the project’s importance, its people, power, and politics, both within the project team and in the wider stakeholder communities.

The number of stakeholders in a project represents a structural complexity, but their different agendas cause sociopolitical complexity.

Emergent Complexity

Emergent complexity comprises uncertainty and change. Uncertainty is typically the result of novelty of technology or process, a lack of experience, a lack of availability of information, or some combination of these.

Change, on the other hand, is part of any project — including changes in requirements, in technology, in stakeholders, and in the organization itself.

Emergent complexity is identified as a challenge caused by a potential or actual change in either a structural or sociopolitical element.

Project Complexity Assessment

The three complexities provide a useful high-level classification, but greater granularity is needed to guide discussions about specific complexities and their management.

Therefore Stephen and his team created the Complexity Assessment Tool (CAT), a simple list with 32 yes/no questions, designed to identify the elements of complexity in a project and guide discussion of those elements. You can download the original research paper here.

Based on the questions of this CAT I created the Project Complexity Assessment. This online assessment will guide you through the three complexity dimensions by asking you 38 questions.

At the end of the assessment you will get a score between 0 and 38. The higher your score, the better you have a grip on the complexity of your project.

After finishing the assessment you will get your score and detailed feedback for each question with links to further reading material on how to handle this part of project complexity.

You will also receive an email with a link to the assessment and your answers so you can review it again any time you want.

In use, the benefits of this assessment arise not directly from the questionnaire but from the subsequent conversations between people involved in the project.

The Project Complexity Assessment is, in other words, a tool for transparency and sense making.

Sociopolitical Complexity is King

One very interesting result of Stephen’s work is that it can also lead to better targeted learning and development activities for managers.

In a teaching session on complexity, they asked 246 project managers, “In your work, which of the three complexities are the most difficult to manage?”

They then asked the same group, “In your own formal training and development, which of the three complexities has received the most attention?”

The contrast between the complexities they faced and the organizational response through learning and development was clear-the area most project managers (68 percent) found most difficult to deal with was socio political, yet a great majority (87 percent) said their training and development had focused on structural issues.

Having this language for discussion enabled the identification of a significant area for development by the organization.

The capability to manage sociopolitical complexity can be enhanced by development activities that focus on stakeholder engagement, project leadership, and change and communications management.

Many elements of this complexity can be turned to benefit through focusing on relational rather than procedural aspects of management.

In a nutshell: Managing complexity should be an urgent concern for any organization doing large technology projects.

Written by

I help C-level executives in the financial service industry with interim management and recovering troubled technology projects.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store