3 Major Types of Project Complexity and How to Manage Them

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In this episode Johnny speaks to renowned lecturer Stephen Carver about Project Complexity and how the various types can be managed.


Rated consistently as one of the top lecturers at Cranfield University, Stephen has a unique ability to enthuse others and create “buzz” around the traditionally “dull” subjects of Project & Programme Management – an inspirationalist, mentor and practitioner.

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Excerpts from “3 major types of project complexity and how to manage them”

Why did project complexity spark your interest?
My background as an engineer. A lot of project management people are brought up as engineers or computer specialists. We’re taught to think in straight lines, that A+B=C and methodology. Sometimes projects just don’t work in that way. Increasingly clients are saying that our projects just don’t work with conventional program tools, are there new ways to see the management of change? They got heavily into complexity.

Breakdown of project complexity
There are over 40 different identified types of complexity published. If I came to you as a practitioner as said I want you to keep a record of 40 different types of complexities in your project, you wouldn’t be too happy with that burden.

We reduced these complexities down to the “three buckets”. It wasn’t a perfect science, but a model that could be used by ordinary people on ordinary projects. The three buckets are:

  • Blue Bucket – structural complexity
  • Green Bucket – emergent complexity
  • Red Bucket – sociopolitical complexity

The three-bucket breakdown
The Blue Bucket—structural complexity—is all about the traditional project and program words. Like scope, size, number of people involved, number of contracts involved, number of office locations involved. It’s a measure of how many bits effectively you’ve got in your project. A large oil refinery is what we call a high structural complexity type project.

The Green Bucket—the emergent complexity—is basically change. How much is your project changing as your trying to manage the project? This could be the change of client or the price of oil going from $150 to $50, so suddenly your whole project has changed. It’s all about the world affecting your project whether you like it or not.

In traditional project management, change is considered to be bad. We try to create boundaries around our projects with strict change control. For lot of projects today, change is inevitable. Once you stop seeing it as a threat to your project and embrace it, then there can be great advantages.

The Red Bucket—sociopolitical—is the touchy-feely, personality, politics, personality, and the behaviours under stress. It’s messy. On the whole, projects are very logical things. What I’ve found is that as soon as you put people on a project common sense goes straight out the window. They start to behave in slightly strange or nonlinear ways.

How are the various levels of complexities divided across projects?
For example, an oil refinery is a high structural project that’s high scale. The emergent complexity is probably fairly low by the time they start building it. The sociopolitical will be pretty low.

The project I did was low structural. Converting the ship wasn’t exactly brain surgery—it was straightforward. The emergent complexity was enormous. Every day it was a new adventure of figuring out how we were going to finance it, operate it, whether all of the mayors of the coastal cities wanted us in their port and when they wanted us in. This is where I learned that change can be good and that it’s an opportunity. The socio-political was pretty low.

At the moment, I work with the U.K. government with some of their projects. With Brexit, the big thing is sociopolitical—we’ve got huge ideas and egos crashing around. Structurally, once they decided the direction they’re going to go in, it’s not that hard. Most of these projects are A to B type projects it’s just we don’t know what direction they’re going to go in. Initially, you’re going to have high levels of emergent complexity on those projects as well.

Three different types of projects and types of balances between the three buckets

In regards to emergent, does good risk management not counteract the amount of emergent complexity?

To a certain extent, but what we’re finding is that although you can do risk registers, the rate of change in the world means that by the time you’ve written your risk register and gotten it approved, the world has changed again. The markets, technology, and fashion have changed. Sometimes it’s good. You can’t nail down a project and have all the changes and risks. You have to open your mind. You can react efficiently and effectively to change with an open mindset, not getting overwhelmed.

“The soft stuff is the hard stuff.”
Absolutely. Let’s take one of the things for sociopolitical—the stakeholders. I do lots of work with clients on the stakeholders. The idea that there isn’t a single client, there are many clients internally and externally. It’s how you manage them all. Stakeholders tend to change their minds, and disciplined people have a hard time accepting this.

We do a simulation running a project before the real project, and they are stunned. It makes them engaged with multiple stakeholders. In real life sometimes stakeholders tell you what they want, but it’s not actually what they want—they’re under pressure, unsure, it’s the early stages of the project. We learn to communicate with stakeholders and build relationships through different styles of communication to get more richness of information and in turn manage them.

Is that a facilitated role-play or the actual stakeholders?
It’s a software simulation The 12 stakeholders appear on your computer screen. You can talk to them, mix them up regarding meetings, and it’s a very human program—you can even anger them.

Often when logical people play this simulation they fail to understand the complex interactions between people. That’s what we try to get out in the end, the idea that it’s not straight lines or a controlled environment. People are infinitely complex in the way that they behave, especially under pressure.

Which of the three types of complexities has given you the most trouble?
About 70% said socio-political is the biggest problem we face on projects, 20% for emergent, and 10% for structural. 80% of all our training and certification concentrate on the structural, 10% for emergent and 10 for political.

Most of our problems come from sociopolitical and yet most of our training as project and change managers are structural. We receive very little training in sociopolitical or emergent.

A lot of people came from a high structural background regarding project management and went into other industries assuming they would be the same. We have to look at dynamic approaches and enrich our skills.

Five levels of project and program competency

  1. Completely incompetent, no structure, and occasionally a project works.
  2. Bits of the organization get project and change management, but unfortunately, the rest of the organization don’t.
  3. The CEO isn’t happy and implements a common methodology.
  4. Methodologies that people buy into and modify them as needed to get their work done.
  5. Success. Bring in change; it’s our opportunity.

What’s the strategic advantage of those five levels?

  1. Strategy is a waste of time.
  2. Some projects will work, but on the whole, they will go wrong—about 70-80%.
  3. About 60% of your projects are going wrong, but you have a lovely ordered trail.
  4. About 80% of your project success, so you can talk about strategy.
  5. Your strategy is faster and more adaptable than anyone else.

There was a lack of barrier at level three. Process would get you from level one to level three, and it would get you from level two to three, but not to level four or five. If you just shove process down people’s throats, then they revert back to level two and one behaviours. It’s all about seizing the sociopolitical and touchy-feely side that will move you on to level four and level five.

Breaking the barriers
This is a barrier that people have to think in a different way and deal with complexity. They need to deal with all of the touchy-feely stuff as well as the process.

Show Notes

Connect with Stephen on LinkedIn
Stephen also has some great videos on YouTube.
Download the paper that Stephen referred to in the interview “How Hard Can It Be?: Actively Managing Complexity in Technology Projects” by Harvey R. Maylor , Neil W. Turner , and Ruth Murray-Webster here

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