Academics have pondered over the definition of project complexity for years but practitioners seem to instinctively know if a project is complex or not. Once you have been around project environments for some time, you get a gut feel for whether a project has a lot of moving parts – which is part of the layperson’s definition of complex.
But what if the PMO could predict complexity earlier in the project: at the point where the proposal and initial ideas were being pulled together? The gut feel measure may come up with the same answer, but it’s typically later, as project professionals start to get their arms around the work and dig into the details.
We’ve been doing some research to better understand project complexity, and have five areas to pinpoint that will hopefully help you understand the complexity of your projects.
The five features of complexity are:
- Dependency and interdependency
- External environmental constraints
These come from work done by Leon Herszon, MSc, PMP and Dr Kaushal Keraminiyage, PhD, both from the University of Huddersfield in the UK. They shared their research* with the PMI community and we’re summarizing that, along with our own take on these dimensions, today.
The easiest way to think about complexity is in the level of uncertainty presented by the project. If you don’t really know how things are going to turn out, everything from scheduling to risk management, team engagement to creating a list of stakeholders becomes a challenge.
Uncertainty can be related to what the project is delivering – where you don’t have clarity over the solution – but also about how the work will be done. You might not have a clearly defined project delivery process, or you are using a new project management tool or a new approach like earned value management to control the work.
That kind of uncertainty changes over time; as the team gets used to using the new tool, the uncertainty around it dissipates.
You can probably think of projects where there is a high degree of uncertainty. For example, developing a software component when you aren’t sure yet how it will integrate with existing software.
2. Dependency and interdependency
How many ‘moving parts’ a project has is often equated with complexity, and it’s in the domain of dependencies that this really has an effect. You can have lots of components within a project, and it not be a complex project. However, as soon as those individual components start affecting each other and things outside the project, the work looks a whole lot more difficult.
Herszon and Keraminiyage define dependency as where some elements are dependent on one another, and some are not, and interdependency as where each element is mutually dependent on others. However, you might not know what element is going to impact the other elements when you start out. The project team might have to test components together to establish how they are going to work in practice, and that exercise carries a lot of uncertainty.
The amount of innovation required is a pretty obvious candidate for inclusion in our exploration of complexity. If you are doing something that has never been done before, then you are likely to hit challenges that you can’t foresee. That’s a headache, but also part of the magic of creating something new.
The biggest challenge for teams working on innovative projects is keeping control of the scope. When you don’t know what you need to create the optimum product, the scope is necessarily flexible. That will play havoc with carefully thought-out work packages, so you may have to choose flexible, iterative approaches to delivering the work instead!
The project team will also have to consider the complexities of launching something brand new to the market. After all, no one realized they needed an iPod until there was an iPod to buy. Innovative projects involve brand positioning and marketing as well as an element of organizational risk-taking.
As we saw above, the reliance on technology you don’t fully understand can add to the complexity of the project. That may happen because the team is designing a new product using tools they are not truly familiar with. Or they could be creating a brand-new technology.
Any time your team has to rely on software that they haven’t got much experience in, you are increasing the complexity level of the project.
Remember, complexity is relative and specific to you and your team. You may not have much experience doing earned value management analytics on your schedule and creating reports in client-mandated software. But other teams do that all the time (like us). Just because someone else finds it easy doesn’t make it less complex for you.
5. External environmental constraints
Finally, the impact of external constraints needs to be taken into account when considering the complexity of a project. That includes:
- Market changes
- Political changes
- Regulatory changes.
All of these could be on a local, country or global level. For example, a fire at a Japanese factory that makes computer chips for the auto industry had a significant impact on car production around the world. Instances like these, while outside the control of your project, could add to the complexity. You can’t predict them in advance, but being aware of where the project has external environmental constraints can at least help you stay alert and do some risk management planning for what would happen if those key links in your project are broken.
Complexity is something that the PMO and project teams have to deal with all the time. Being aware of the elements that contribute to complexity can help you better manage project risk and identify things that could challenge your ability to complete the work successfully.
Understanding complexity and what it looks like for your program is also helpful for communication. Talk to stakeholders about why a project is likely to be difficult, and you may find it opens their eyes to the risks and potential problems that you may face as the work progresses.
* Herszon, L. & Keraminiyage, K. (2014). Dimensions of project complexity and their impact on cost estimation. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2014—North America, Phoenix, AZ. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.