Complexity of projects is a topic that is often debated in project management. It may be second only to success of projects. Why are we so curious? It is all about the realization of benefits (or project success) and ultimately, the level of our achievement in delivering positive changes.
Complexity of a project is more about the magnitude of the challenge ahead. It is therefore not an output, but an input to the management and implementation of the change process.
Can we deliver the results that are required? What can we do to ensure that our success is not turned into failure? How can the difficulty of the challenge assessed and why is this important
“The purpose of assessing project complexity was to understand the magnitude and challenges in delivering future changes.”
Bakhshi et al. (2016) examines the historical evolution of project complexity. They identified 783 publications that were related to complex projects from 1990 to April 2015. 423 of these publications specifically address project complexity.
Over a 25-year period, more than 125 complexity factors have been identified. Figure 1 shows the results of their review.
Although this taxonomy has some merits and is supported by evidence, it is not practical for assessing project complexity in real life. Google images search for “project complexity” reveals a wide range of models and frameworks that can be used to help you. There is no consensus on which model or framework is the best.
Figure 1: Primary project complexity factors based on number of citations (Source : Bakhshi and al. 2016)
Oehmen et al. (2015) provide a useful typology to aid in complexity decision-making. They classify projects as simple, complicated, and chaotic. Simple projects are characterized by stability and clear cause/effect relationships.
Complex projects can be characterized by unexpected emergent behavior that is still fundamentally understandable through structured analysis. Chaotic projects are those where cause and effect relationships are difficult to determine. They shift constantly and there are no manageable patterns.
Others (e.g. Snowden & Boone 2007; Sheffield et al. 2012) can also be used to refer to complex and dynamic projects.
IBM created the Cynefin framework (see figure 2) to describe their decision-making processes within their organization. It has been used to help project complexity thinking.
It employs complex, confusing, complex, and chaotic realms as well as ‘disorder’ to reflect the gaps within. The suggested responses should not be taken to mean that there is a better or worse approach – they are just different approaches.
Figure 2: The Cynefin Framework (Source: adapted by Snowden & Boone 2007,
No matter what labels are used, it is universally agreed that project complexity can be described as a continuum of simple to complex.
This continuum can mean increased uncertainty, from what is commonly known to be known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, or even the concept of ‘wicked problems’ that pose a challenge to effective resolution.
Oehmen et al. further define complex projects. (2015) identifies complex projects as having all of the following characteristics.
Multiple parts
Possessing many connections between parts
Dynamic interactions between parts
The behavior that results from those interactions cannot be explained by the sum of their parts (i.e. Emergent behaviour
CIFTER is a practical approach to assessing project management complexity. It uses seven complexity factors and four performance/rating indicators, as shown in Figure 3. Scores can range from 7 to 28 inclusive.
The characteristics of project management can change over time. Therefore, CIFTER factors could also change over time. These characteristics address issues such as size, importance to stakeholders and externalities that are often out of the control of project managers.