Assessing the Risk Profile of a Project must take Account of it’s Degree of Complexity.

There continues to be a high number of significant project failures (frequently covered by the media) which suggests that current project and risk management methodologies are not working. Simplistically, for construction projects, failure is commonly reported as schedule and or cost overrun whereas for other industries such as information management, projects failure may focus on the lack of realization of user requirements. This failure is attributed in part to inadequate management of emerging complexity which is not transparent at project inception(1)The ability to promptly and successfully manage emerging complexity will determine project success. As a consequence there is increasing agreement that an understanding of the source and subsequent management of this complexity is important for project goal attainment. This agreement is accompanied by a steady increase in the number of articles and papers appearing in the project management research literature associated with the subject of complexity. A clear message that can be drawn from the literature is that specific approaches are required to manage complexity. In addition, as complexity increases, the suitability of linear sequential management approaches decreases(2) and the exposure to unknown-unknown risks(3) together with the difficulty in predicting the likelihood and impact of potential foreseeable risks(4), increases. Hence while the pragmatism of applying risk management at project inception (and periodically thereafter) to support informed rational decision making has been rewarded on simple projects, on more complex projects a more in depth approach is required.

The word “complex” originates from the Latin complexus and may be defined as a whole made up of obviously interrelated parts where knowledge of the degree and nature of the relationship between them is uncertain or imperfect(5) . There appears to be no consensus in the literature on the precise meaning of the term complexity in the context of projects. Researchers appear to be in agreement that complexity can no longer just be described in terms of cost and time alone as other factors are at play. While Remington et al(6) emphasise the difficulty in measuring complexity and that the degree of complexity on a project may be perceived differently by different participants, the existence of complexity is not in doubt. Authors have attempted to label categories of complexity applicable to projects across all industries whereas industry specific categories may be more appropriate. Clearly nuclear, aerospace, defence and pharmaceutical projects for instance have unique challenges. An early research paper by Turner and Cochrane(7) described project complexity with the aid of their goals-and-methods matrix which depicted a two-by-two matrix where degree of goal definition was mapped against degree of method definition. The matrix implies four types of project:

  • Type-l projects: for which the goals and methods of achieving the project are well defined,
  • Type-2 projects: for which the goals are well defined but the methods are not,
  • Type-3 projects: for which the goals are not well defined but the methods are,
  • Type-4 projects: for which neither the goals nor the methods are well defined.
  1. Project Management Institute (2010) “Early Warning Signs in Complex Projects”, Authors Klakegg, OJ., Williams, T., Walker, D., Andersen, B. and Magnussen, OM.
  2. Williams, T. (1999) “The need for new paradigms for complex projects,” International Journal of Project Management, vol. 17, pp. 269-273, 1999.
  3. As described in a response by the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing.
  4. Kyratzoglou, I (2013) “Making the Right Risk Decisions to Strengthen Operations Performance”, /kyratzoglou-supply-chain-risk-management.html
  5. Merriam (Merriam Webster, an Encyclopedia Britannica Company)
  6. Remington, K., Zolin, R. and Turner, R. (2008) “A Model of Project Complexity: Distinguishing dimensions of complexity from severity”. In: Proceedings of the 9th International Research Network of Project Management Conference, 11–13 October 2009, Berlin.
  7. Turner, J. R. and Cochrane, R. A. (1993)“Goals-and-methods matrix: coping with projects with ill defined goals and/or methods of achieving them”, Vol 11 No 2 May 1993 Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd

A further attempt at defining project complexity is founded on two key concepts differentiation and interdependency(8), where differentiation refers to the number of varied elements and interdependency to the degree of interrelatedness amongst those elements(9), (10)Baccarini(11) describes technological and organizational differentiation and interdependency as follows:

  • Technological complexity: ‘differentiation’ would mean the number and diversity of inputs, outputs, tasks or specialties; ‘interdependency’ would be the interdependencies between tasks, teams, technologies and or inputs.
  • Organisational complexity: ‘differentiation’ would mean both the number of vertical hierarchical levels and the number of horizontal formal organisational units, division of tasks and number of specializations etc; ‘interdependency’ would be the degree of operational interdependencies and interaction between organisational elements.

Amongst the latest contributors to the subject of complexity are Remington and Pollack(12) who suggest four sources of complexity which will influence the selection of methods of identifying and managing risks: structural, technical, directional and temporal, as described below.

  • Structural complexity stems from the difficulty in managing and keeping track of a huge number of different interconnected tasks and activities (commonly associated with large construction, engineering and defence projects).
  • Technical complexity is found in projects which have technical or design problems associated with products that have never been produced before, or with techniques that are unknown or untried and for which there are no precedents.
  • Directional complexity originates from ambiguity related to multiple potential interpretations of goals and objectives and is found in projects which are characterised by unshared goals, unclear meanings and hidden agendas.
  • Temporal complexity is found in projects characterised by shifting and unanticipated environmental impacts, unexpected legislative changes or the development of new technologies.

From their research, Remington et al(13) identified a large number of topics which they grouped under seven complexity headings which they labelled as ‘themes’. The topics under the themes have been summarised here. The topics included under the theme ‘management processes’ appear to relate predominantly to procurement and hence the theme title appears inappropriate. These themes introduce the dimensions of cultural and language differences, stakeholders and procurement.

  • Goals: Unrealistic or unclear goals.
  • Stakeholders: The requirement to manage multiple and or changing senior stakeholders (with corresponding changes in requirements).
  1. Baccarini, D. (1996) “The concept of project complexity – a review,” International Journal of Project Management,
  2. vol. 14, pp. 201-204, 1996.
  3. Walker, A. (1996) “Project Management in Construction”. Oxford: Blackwell Science.
  4. Williams, T. (1999) “The need for new paradigms for complex projects,” International Journal of Project Management, vol. 17, pp. 269-273, 1999.
  5. Baccarini, D. (1996), as above
  6. Remington, K. and Pollack J., (2008) Tools for Complex Projects. Aldershot: Gower Publishing.
  7. Remington, K., Zolin, R. and Turner, R. (2008) A Model of Project Complexity: Distinguishing dimensions of complexity from severity. In: Proceedings of the 9th International Research Network of Project Management Conference, 11–13 October 2009, Berlin.
  • Interfaces and interdependencies: Interdependencies with other projects, schedules, quality requirements, legacy systems and departments in the same organisation.
  • Technology: Innovate, changing, difficult or cutting-edge technology.
  • Management processes: Procurement choices, contractor relationships, contractor ethics, supplier monopolies and overlapping of processes due to concurrent engineering.
  • Work practices: Cultural and language differences between participating departments, organisations and nations, time differences associated with international projects, appropriateness of project personnel selection, inappropriate project methodology and micro-reporting.
  • Time: Change of decision makers (and key relationships) and instability of requirements (and project definition) over time, pre-history that influenced subsequent decisions, and project plans frequently being re-shaped.

When examining the latter’s work what emerges is the potential for change. Changes in goals and stakeholders together with changes arising from project interfaces, developments in technology, concurrent engineering and legislation.

In summary, given the growing evidence of project failure arising from the tendency for projects to be subject to greater complexity, complexity warrants greater scrutiny to avoid delays, abortive costs and a lack of realisation of project objectives. Where there is currently no absolute consensus is what drives complexity, how does it introduce risk and how is this risk to be effectively managed.

[ribbon_new header=”h2″ style=”dark”]Author Bio:[/ribbon_new]Dr Chapman is an international risk management specialist. He is the author of the recently published book by Gower Publishing called “The Rules of Project Risk Management, Implementation Guidelines for Major Projects” which can be ordered online at The book is recommended reading by the Institute of Risk Management, The Institute of Commercial Management and the Global Institute for Risk Management Standards. The book has had endorsements from the UK, France, South Africa and the UAE.

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By: Baz Khinda

Baz Khinda
Commercial Director, BA, MBS, MCTS, CertBusM, PRINCE2, Microsoft P-SSP (Partner Solution Sales professional)
Categories: Consulting

Published: 2 January 2015

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