What is Complexity?


Whilst there is no universally accepted definition for Complex Project Management, at the point of ICCPM’s establishment it was agreed between its founding organisations that complex projects are those that:

  • Are characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity, dynamic interfaces, and significant political or external influences; and/or

  • Usually run over a period which exceeds the technology cycle time of the technologies involved; and/or

  • Can be defined by effect, but not by solution.


Across the globe, awareness is emerging of the urgent need for improved delivery of projects that are complex. Research indicates that traditional, linear project management tools and techniques, while still necessary, are often insufficient to manage the complexities of 21st century projects. But what are the elements deemed to be causing this disruption?

  • Details – number of variables and interfaces

  • Ambiguity – lack of awareness of events and causality

  • Uncertainty – inability to pre-evaluate actions

  • Unpredictability – the inability to know what will happen

  • Dynamics – rapid rate of change

  • Social structure – numbers and types of interactions

  • Interrelationships – many interdependencies and interconnections exist

Whilst not all projects are complex, all projects have a life-cycle and most projects will experience a period of complexity during their lifetime.

Below you will find a select list of publications that attempt to define Complexity and Complex Project Management.

Click here for the Complex Project Manager Competency Standards »

complexity, structure, training, development
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Managing Complex Projects - A New Model

Kathleen B. (Kitty) Hass (2009)

For organizations to thrive, indeed to survive, in today’s global economy, we must find ways to dramatically improve the performance of large-scale projects. Applying the concepts of complexity theory can complement conventional project management approaches and enable us to adapt to the unrelenting change that we ignore at our own peril. Managing Complex Projects: A New Model offers an innovative way of looking at projects and treating them as complex adaptive systems. Applying the principles of complexity thinking will enable project managers and leadership teams to manage large-scale initiatives successfully.

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Tools for Complex Projects

K. Remmington & J. Pollack (2007)

Traditional project management approaches assume that project contexts are unchanging and key factors, though complicated, are reducible to unambiguous elements for management and control. Whilst this assumption has simplified the task for writers and educators, it is increasingly being recognised that these techniques do not work in projects which may be described as complex (due to their size, technical difficulties, conflicting environmental and political constraints or poorly understood or shared goals). Tools for Complex Projects draws on research in the areas of project management, complexity theory and systems thinking to provide a ready reference for understanding and managing the increasing complexity of projects and programmes.

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Leading Complex Projects

K. Remington (2012)

Leadership in projects has been under-represented in many of the most influential project methodologies, where the focus has been on management and process. The importance to project success of key roles such as project board member, executive sponsor, project manager, client representative or team leader, increases exponentially with the scale and complexity of the project.

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Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers

M. Jackson (2003)

Too often, today’s managers are sold simple solutions to complex problems. But as many soon discover, simplicity is rarely effective in the face of complexity, change and diversity. Despite apparent promise, quick-fix panaceas fail because they are not holistic or creative enough. They focus on parts of the organization rather than the whole, take little account of interaction, and pander to the notion that there is one best solution in all circumstances. As instances of such failure escalate, intelligent managers are increasingly seeking to improve results through Systems Thinking.

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Complexity: A Guided Tour

M. Mitchell (2009)

What enables individually simple insects like ants to act with such precision and purpose as a group? How do trillions of neurons produce something as extraordinarily complex as consciousness? In this remarkably clear and companionable book, leading complex systems scientist Melanie Mitchell provides an intimate tour of the sciences of complexity, a broad set of efforts that seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals.

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