Project Management

3 Types of Complexity

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At PMI’s Synergy conference at the end of last year, Stephen Carver gave a well-received presentation which included some information about the different types of complexity, as perceived by the brains at Cranfield.

He talked about what success looks like on projects and said that the level of complexity faced is part of whether a project is deemed to be a success or not. The 3 types of complexity he identified are:

  • Structural
  • Emergent
  • Socio-political.

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

Structural complexity

This is the ‘easiest’ level of complexity and it involves the scale of the work on the project. A project is structurally complex when it has many stakeholders, workstreams or other elements. There is a lot for the project manager to manage and control, with many variables.

Emergent complexity

This is where the project is changing around you, for example increases to the price of steel in a construction project or stakeholders who were not identified at the outset suddenly needing to be included. It encompasses projects where there are a number of unforeseen issues or where the situation is unknowable, for example where there is a great deal of novelty perhaps in the technical set up or the way the commercials are being managed.

Socio-political complexity

This is where the project suffers from hidden agendas and lots of politics. There is little transparency and at the worst end of the scale maybe even sabotage. There are conflicting priorities and resistance. Cultural IQ becomes really important for the project manager along with being able to adequately manage the people involved and creating a shared understanding of objectives and the project’s vision in order to align agendas effectively.

Stephen said that most training courses cover dealing with structural complexity but in a survey of 246 project managers who were asked which of these 3 areas they found most challenging, socio-political complexity came out on top.

Which is hardly a surprise.

“Projects,” he said, “are deeply emotional things.” Whether the Millennium Dome, for example, was seen as a success or failure is down to your point of view and the passage of time: rebadged as the O2, it’s now a very successful arena and venue. The Sydney Opera House, Concord and Terminal 5 at Heathrow were other examples he gave of projects where the definition of success was difficult to pin down and would mean different things to different people.

“If you don’t do anything, you won’t make any mistakes,” he added. “We do a lot so we are bound to make mistakes.” Unfortunately, on complex projects these mistakes tend to be in the socio-political arena and they can be very hard to undo. Not setting up proper workstream reporting, for example, might give you a structural problem at the start of your project but it’s easy enough to address that sort of complexity and put it right. Dealing with damaged egos or senior stakeholders who each think the project is going to address their own pet issue is a far harder situation to deal with.

He didn’t give any pointers as far as I can remember about being able to deal with socio-political complexity, although I imagine that a 45 minute presentation about project success was never going to have much time to touch on what project managers can do differently (better) in order to address these challenges.

What tips do you have for managing projects with this type of complexity? Is it just good stakeholder management or are there other things that you can do to deal with it successfully? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Posted on: January 08, 2014 12:44 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Like the article, but I'm not comfortable with the definition of "Emergent complexity". Maybe it is my science background, but to me the definition here just sounds like a structural complexity that no-one spotted.

In maths/science complexity, emergent complexity means complexity that is surprisingly and often limitlessly complex due to the unavoidable uncertainties, and generally due to the complexity being sensitive to tiny variations in initial conditions, or as we PMs know them - constraints, inputs, baselines etc. In project space, I would call work emergent complex if a tiny change in some factor (say a trivial change in the required look and feel of a component that couldn't be defined until well into the project) had the capacity to change huge aspects of the work needed.

Bernard, there are some more general articles on the Cranfield website but nothing specific about what Stephen was talking about directly in relation to projects. However, you can see his slides here and that might put it in context a bit more: http://www.slideshare.net/assocpm/stephen-carver-presentation100413

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