Forums Managing Risk in Complexity SIG
Examples of complexity and emergence

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  • Stephen Grey
      Post count: 104


      I can see what you are after and a few examples might be educational

      I apologise if the following has been considered in recent meetings as I have been unable to devote the time to join in but, I have two concerns

      1. The more exciting, intricate and attention grabbing an example is, chosen to make the complexity clear and unequivocal, the more likely it is that some people who really should be thinking about complexity will feel that it is nothing relevant to their more mundane work. They might well decide it’s all a bit overblown for them and back off.

      2. One of the key lessons I have taken from this work is that almost every project has some potential for complex behaviour whether in its internal management or seen in its broader organisation and governance context.

      Rather than thinking in terms of whether one should be concerned about complexity on a project or if the project team is justified in dismissing it, I feel it is more useful to assume every project has some potential for complex behaviour. Some businesses demand a statement of the riskiness and complexity of a project as part of the funding application. This routinely leads to strategic misrepresentation by teams seeking to ensure their budget is approved and that they can keep senior management off their back,

      I would recommend any project assume some part, even if only small, ask how powerful is the complexity it might face, and either:

      • address that which can be seen or
      • prepare for it to become apparent later.

      Once it has been dismissed from the minds of a project team, it will be a devil of a job to drag them back to it but, if a constant low level acknowledgement of complexity is part of normal business, it need not absorb much time but it might offer both an early warning mechanism and provide a hook for concerns about complexity to be taken up and given serious attention if necessary.

      Some of Ian’s comments about what he saw as important resources and mechanisms to manage large complex projects hold a mirror up to what people should be alert to, a few from memory are:

      • resources available to estimate the cost and schedule implication of unplanned changes swiftly – complexity associated with changes from plans
      • close relationships with steering committee and other governance authorities – complexity associated with the organisational and regulatory context
      • an intelligence network in the project through which the Director can be kept informed of trends, developing issues etc. – complexity associated with gaps between reality and the information being used to manage the work

      There are more and I might not have expressed them well but, rather than say “Look at this project, it was complex” I am inclined to say “Here are features of a project that represent or can lead to complex behaviour” and perhaps follow that up with a case study. Draw attention to the mechanisms at work, with outlines of light weight and more profound variants, and paint a picture of it using examples as explanatory information. The mechanisms are open to generalisation and adoption by anyone but the examples might be somewhat narrow by virtue of being about a particular sector or technology.


      Robert McMartin
      SIG Chair
        Post count: 44

        Hello Brains Trust,

        I hope everyone is good, I have been travelling of late, and while overseas have been talking with different international groups about complexity. One of the people I was talking with, asked for examples, and while my examples of complexity from previous projects have been more about emergence, with the exception of Commonwealth Games, Formula One and Air Services.  It made me wonder, do we need to put together a list of complex project examples, both straight complexity, as well as emergence.

        Nothing conveys and understanding of a subject than previous examples especially showing what works and what doesn’t.

        This could potentially be another paper, examples from simple project gone complex, through to complex projects from day one.  I have also been chasing a personal project which has been looking at  complexity through history (well that is the excuse I will give the tax man, for all my overseas travel).

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