Complexity Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at

As we are becoming more (excruciatingly?) aware, we live in a world of increased complexity. But just what does that mean, exactly? And in particular, what does it mean in the context of our projects?

The complexity of projects is an important consideration in determining how they should be managed. In just about every instance that the term “complexity” comes up in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—that would be 19 times, to be precise—it is to advise that how a project is managed needs to vary depending upon the complexity of the project. The only nuance to this guidance is to suggest (once) that iterative and agile techniques may be helpful in managing complexity.

What’s missing, however, is any practical direction on what variations of process would appropriately look like as complexity grows (or how they would change as complexity declined). In point of fact, there is an inherent assumption that we all understand each other and are talking about the same thing when we use the word “complexity.” And I’m not altogether certain that is true.

So let’s tackle meaning first, and then we can consider appropriate actions.

Now, if we just check out a dictionary definition of “complexity,” it offers the altogether unhelpful suggestion that it is “the quality or …

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