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Complexity and Project Management: A General Overview
Complexity, Vol. 2018 |Article ID 4891286 | https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/4891286
José R. San Cristóbal,1 Luis Carral,2 Emma Diaz,3 José A. Fraguela,2 and Gregorio Iglesias4
i) Complexity influences project planning, coordination, and control; (ii) it hinders the clear identification of goals and objectives of major projects; (iii) it can affect the selection of an appropriate project organization form and experience requirements of management personnel; (iv) it can be used as criteria in the selection of a suitable project management arrangement; and (v) it can affect different project outcomes (time, cost, quality, safety, etc.). With increasing complexity, application of traditional tools and techniques developed for simple projects has been found to be inappropriate for complex projects. Complexity, therefore, contributes more or less, to project failure in organizations. Complexity can have both a negative and a positive influence on projects. On the negative side, it is the emergence of new properties unknown to the system. The positive influence is due to the appearance of unexpected opportunities. This means that project managers must know to seize the opportunities and learn to avoid or cut down the negative effects of complexity.
Definitions of Project Complexity
To simplify Luhmann theory, project complexity can also be seen as identifying the number of elements in a project and interdependencies (degree of interrelatedness) between these elements. Pich et al.  define complexity as information inadequacy when too many variables interact. Custovic  goes further and defines complexity as a situation when even knowing these interdependencies would not suffice.
Some distinguish between complicated and complex projects. Richardson associates linearity with complicated projects, and nonlinearity with complex projects, which implies that nonlinearity makes the relationship between inputs and outputs unpredictable. Remington et al.  defines a complex project as one that demonstrates a number of characteristics to a degree or level of severity that makes it extremely difficult to predict project outcomes, to control or manage the project. Girmscheid and Brockmann  define project complexity as a set of problems that consists of many parts with a multitude of possible interrelations, most of them being of high consequence in the decision-making process that brings about the final result. [Hosein’s comment: large number of elements are based on Stuart Kauffman’s NK model. See my paper on NK: https://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/id/eprint/6582/1/Shamsavari-A-6582.pdf]
Project Complexity Factors and Characteristics
The following factors are generally recognised to be central to project complexity:
Size: Size has traditionally been considered the primary cause of complexity in organizations [37–40]. But there is a minimum critical size to make this factor effective. .
Interdependence and Interrelations: The number of systems and subsystems in the project, the cross-organizational and schedule interdependencies between activities.
Goals and Objectives: Goals and objectives must be adequately and properly defined, both at a strategic and at an operational level. In addition, all project participants including owners, managers, contractors, and consultants must be clear about these goals and objectives.
Stakeholders: The number of project participants and how the information flows among them are a key factor affecting project complexity. If the project is politically sensitive and of high visibility, project complexity can considerably be increased. Managing conflicting agendas of various stakeholder strategies and processes, can also amplify the complexity of a project.
Management Practices: Contractor relationships and ethics, supplier monopolies, overlapping of processes and activities, methodologies, and techniques that can affect the definition of project goals and objectives are all factors that can influence project complexity.
Division of Labor: Adding project organizational structure by dividing labor into smaller and more specialized tasks, and pressure to achieve project objectives are all factors that can increase project complexity.
Technology: The most critical dimension of technology is the variety of tasks that need to be accomplished. It explains why there is a need for a variety of technologies and a given level of specialization in each of them. Baccarini: Technological complexity by differentiation refers to the number and diversity of inputs/outputs, tasks to undertake, and specialities and contractors involved in the project. Technological complexity by interdependency encompasses interdependencies between tasks, within a network of tasks, between teams, between different technologies, and between inputs.
Concurrent Engineering: This is very much similar to what we know as Matrix Organisations. As we know these are more complex compared to pure projects.
Globalization and Context Dependence: Methods and practices applicable to a project may not work in projects in different institutional, language, and cultural configurations.
Diversity: A higher number of elements and a higher variety across elements increase complexity.
Ambiguity: Ambiguity can be defined as too much information with less and less clarity on how to interpret and apply findings. [My article complexity view of reputation sees ambiguity in a positive light. Hosein piranfar]
Flux: Flux implies constant change and adaptation to changing conditions making temporary solutions regarding interdependence, diversity, and ambiguity outdated from one day to another . Flux is affected by external and internal influences. External influences can either be political or market-related changes, while internal influences come from changes in strategy, in individual behaviour, etc.
Types of Project Complexity
Project complexity is more concerned with organizational complexity than technical or environmental ones. Vidal and Marle  argued that approximately 70% of the complexity factors of the project are organizational. They also conceive two types of complexity: systems-based, and managers’ perceived complexities. For all practical purposes, a project manager deals with perceived complexity as he cannot understand and deal with the whole reality and complexity of the project. How complexity is perceived and interpreted by project managers may result in different types of project complexity. Baccarini  considers technological and organizational complexities as the as the two main types. There are also four minor types of project complexity: Overall, task, social, and cultural. These help to understand and prevent projects from failure. Task complexity refers to the density of the units, causal links, and consequences within a temporal and spatial frame. Social complexity describes the number of members communicating and working with each other and the differentiation of their tasks. Cultural complexity compresses the history, experience, and sense-making processes of different groups that joint [integrate] the efforts in a project. Overall and task complexity can be managed by a functional organization with decentralized decision-making and social complexity by trust and commitment, whereas cultural complexity by sense-making processes [interpretation].
Pollack and Remington and Pollack [50, 51] suggest four types of project complexity: structural, technical, directional, and temporal complexity. Structural complexity stems from large-scale projects which are typically broken down into small tasks and separate contracts. Projects in the engineering, construction, IT, and defence sectors where the complexity stems from the difficulty in managing and keeping track of the high number of interconnected tasks and activities are likely to have this type of complexity . Technical complexity is found in architectural, industrial design, and R&D projects which have design characteristics or technical aspects that are unknown or untried and where complexity arises because of the uncertainty regarding the outcome for many independent design solutions . Baccarini  categorizes technological complexity in terms of differentiation and interdependence, which is further categorized into three types given in an ascending order of complexity: (i) pooled, in which each element gives a discrete contribution to the project; (ii) sequential, where one element’s output becomes another’s input; and (iii) reciprocal, where each element’s output becomes inputs for other elements [51, 52]. Directional complexity is often found in change projects where the direction of the project is not understood and when it is clear that something must be done to improve a problematic situation . Temporal complexity results in projects where due to unexpected legislative changes of rapid changes in technology, there is a high level of uncertainty regarding future constraints that could destabilize the project. Operative complexity, i.e., the degree to which organizations of the project are independent when defining their operations to achieve given goals, and cognitive complexity which identifies the degree to which self-reflection, sense-making processes, the emergence of an identity, or even an organizational culture is possible, are also different types of complexity identified in the literature .
5. Project Complexity Models
Between simplicity and high complexity there are the following classification of management models to complex projects:
Goals and Methods Matrix: Turner and Cochrane  developed the goals and methods matrix where four types of projects can be found: (i) Project goals and methods are well-defined and understood. (ii) projects with well-defined goals but poorly defined methods. (iii) Projects are planned in life-cycle stages with poorly defined goals but well-defined methods; and (iv) type 4 projects with no defined goals and no defined methods. Typically, engineering and construction projects fall within the category of type 1 projects. Product development projects belong to type 2, while application software development and R&D and organizational change projects belong to type 3 and type 4 projects, respectively.
Stacey’s Agreement and Certainty Matrix: Stacey  analysed complexity in two dimensions, the degree of certainty and the level of agreement and, based on these two dimensions, developed the matrix with the following zones: (i) close to agreement, close to certainty: in this zone, we can find simple projects where traditional project management techniques work well and the goal is to identify the right process to maximize efficiency and effectives; (ii) far from agreement, close to certainty: in this case, coalitions, compromise, and negotiation are used to solve this type of situations; (iii) close to agreement, far from certainty: in this case, traditional project management techniques may not work and leadership approaches must be used to solve this type of situations; and (iv) far from agreement far from certainty: this is the zone of chaos with a high level of uncertainty and where traditional management techniques will not work.
William’s Model: Williams and Hillson  extend Baccarini’s model by one additional dimension.[the word extend indicates critical literature] In addition to the two components of complexity suggested by Baccarini, W&H introduce uncertainty and attributes the increasing complexity in projects to two compounding causes, the relationship between product complexity and project complexity and the length of projects.
Kahane’s Approach: This isdeeply rooted in a social environment. He distinguishes complexity in three ways: (i) dynamic complexity: the cause and effect of complexity are far apart and it is hard to grasp from first-hand experience; (ii) generative complexity: where the solution cannot be built on the past; and (iii) social complexity: the variety of the people who have to participate in the project. Project managers in Kahane have to make sense of the reality.
Cynefin Decision-Making Framework: The main dimensions are: Simple and complicated domains are characterized by cause and effect relationships, and right answers can be determined based on facts. The complex and chaotic domains do not have a clear cause and effect relationship, and decisions must be made based on incomplete data. The last domain, disorder, is applied when it is unclear which of the four is dominant and is tackled by breaking it down into smaller components and then assigning them to the other four domains.
The UCP Model: The UCP model classifies projects according to uncertainty, complexity, and pace. Each of these are then divided into several layers
Current and Future Approaches to Manage Complexity
Stacey thinks the degree of complexity perceived in a project might influence leadership style and decision-making in periods of organizational change. Another study of new product development found that long-cycle complex projects were run by autocratic leaders, who adhered to a well-defined standardized and serially processed approach. In contrast, short-cycle complex projects were run by project managers who used a more participative management style with many external sources of information.
The increasingly fast-paced systems of today’s business and social environment, characterized by discontinuity and change, force organizations to make decisions and take the corresponding actions based on multiple unknown variables. According to Pundir et al. , since projects exhibit the characteristics of complex systems, the method to manage them cannot be predicted in advance, it will emerge from the interactions between the project elements and the environment. Richardson  explores the implications of complexity from the management of organizations and how “thinking complexity” may affect the way in which project managers do their jobs. According to the author, if there are limits to what we can know about our organization, there are limits to what we can achieve in a predetermined and planned way. H. Singh and A. Singh  argue that it is at the edge of chaos, where linear systems begin to fail and nonlinear systems begin to dominate and where project managers must begin to pay greater attention to the nonlinear and subtle influences in their planning and management styles.
Q1. Outline one of the project complexity types that you think is useful to know.
Q2. What are the main elements [characteristics] of project complexity?
Q3 If project managers have to manage based on interactions between the project elements and the environment, then choose two of these elements from your answer to Q2 and explain how they would interact with changing environment
Q4. How do you think understanding complexity would help prevent project failure?
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