Managing Risk in Complexity Special Interest Group


by MRC SIG Co-Chairs:
Dr Richard Barber
Davin Shellshear



During the ICCPM Roundtable series there was interest in further exploring how to manage risks in complex project environments. As a result the ‘Managing Risk in Complexity’ SIG was formed. It had its first full meeting on 25th March and now has over 30 members.

All ICCPM members can access the MRC SIG forum, including reading the articles, papers and meeting notes. To contribute to the forum and to attended online sessions, it is easy to register.

Two SIG working groups have been formed:

  • Working Group A Topic: Identify, review and report on risk approaches and tools that enable better visualisation of complex interconnected risks, provoke investigatory dialogue and lead to deeper insights for leaders making decisions.
  • Working Group B Topic: How can we “wake up” project leaders and stakeholders who are reluctant to accept or apply complexity methods and models.

Both working groups have been very active, meeting every two or three weeks.

Effective approaches, methods or tools for understanding and working on complex, interconnected risks

1. builds the trust and confidence of decision makers, by:

• being able to be shown, described, demonstrated easily and clearly.
• having practical, meaningful inputs and outputs that decision makers understand.
• using practical, easily understood language, methods, ideas.
• being recognised as valid by trusted third parties (ICCPM, universities, …)

2. enables and provokes dialogue, discussion and challenge by:

• being visual, easily grasped, easily discussed
• showing complex risks or sets of risks in ways that enable deeper understanding
• enabling open dialogue, testing and challenging between stakeholders
• being able to be used over time
• being able to be shared electronically, without special software.

3. enables new, deeper insights that matter, by:

• providing perspectives and views of risk not easily available from traditional risk registers
• taking decision makers on a journey of discovery and understanding
• being able to shows trends over time
• quickly and easily showing the results of changing inputs, factors or assumptions
• exposing and testing assumptions we are making

4. works on risk(s) as a whole, rather than one risk at a
time, by:

• providing clear visual representations of both individual complex risks and sets of interconnected risks as a whole
• effectively representing the complexity as a whole, without oversimplifying
• applying systems thinking principles and methods
• working in and on whole projects as “complex adaptive systems”

5. is widely accessible and useable in practice, by

• being high value for cost and/or effort
• making good sense to wide range of worldviews (not just from a systems world view)
• being timely in application
• not over-complicating – allowing things that are simple to be treated as such
• being able to be used at multiple levels and in many situations
• not requiring special software

6. helps leaders to work at an appropriate level of complexity, by:

• providing guidance on how to assess the level(s) of complexity faced
• providing guidance on the nature of appropriate responses at different levels of complexity

Working Group A progress overview

Our intial focus has been on identifying the kinds of risk management approaches, methods and tools most useful for people working on complex risks. One crucial attribute identified is that they should help people to visualise interconnected risks. They should also have some or all the attributes, illustrated above under six main categories.

Working Group A has also identified some specific approaches, methods or tools with these attributes. They range from well-known risk methods, to recently developed software packages. There are also some techniques based on widely available tools such as spreadsheets. Identifying a list of approaches, methods or tools is a work in progress.

We are looking for more insights and ideas, especially about approaches, tools or methods that help decision makers to understand and to work on complex and or interconnected risks.

If you know of an approach, method or tool that you think may be valuable when seeking to understand and manage complex interconnected risks, please register for the MRC SIG and add your voice to the forum.

If you are unsure, contact Richard Barber at

Working Group B progress overview

MRC SIG Working Group B is focused on approaches to help risk professionals and stakeholders become more aware of complexity in projects and to be more willing to use tools (such as those considered in Group A) when they encounter complexity in their projects. We have completed 8 meetings – full transcripts of the discussions are available on the forum site.

Group B has been able to draw on a wide range of experience and understandings from Australia, Canada and UK and participants have provided very rich discussions around the topic. Members have expressed positive appreciation of the breadth and content of the discussions, which have exceeded expectations.

Ways to improve the take-up of complexity capability approaches to risk in projects

Use gentle, positive, respectful approaches

  • Use less ‘negative’ term than “wakeup”
  • Win them over with consistent (gentle) ongoing messaging from a variety of perspectives and in multiple ways.
  • Have a non-threatening iterative process of inquiry, education, questions, examples of the benefits. Get them thinking.
  • First listen. Get them to say how they do things, and why. Then explain how you would do the same thing, and why.
  • Show respect. Avoid people feeling threatened or devalued
  • Our message should be about the need to add to (enhance) traditional approaches. Don’t say they are wrong.

Be helpful – add value to what they are doing or what they care about

  • Support them in they want to achieve – but using complexity thinking and methods. Do work they need done well – it may change their thinking.
  • Do practical, hands on real work to demonstrate, teach, review, discuss.Use fewer “arguments” and more experiences.
  • Appeal to their desire to be an insightful leader, to go beyond short term or superficial risk responses.

Be practical, understandable, relevant

  • First make sure you are trying to convince someone who actually is facing complexity.
  • Provide simple tool(s) to assess the complexity of their project quickly, cheaply, timely.
  • Avoid ‘complexity’ language. Use practical terms, with a focus on outcomes they care about.
  • Don’t overcomplicate – you’ll lose them.
  • Talk about programs or transformations – the term ‘project’ may imply smaller, less complex

Enlist the help of people with credibility or authority

  • Enlist the help of senior stakeholders who are already ‘awake’ to provide pressure for change. For example, they can:
    • Implement governance requirements that make using complexity tools unavoidable
    • Enlist the help of expert 3rd party as a ’silent partner’ in the project or project
  • Advocates for CPM must be both experienced managers and also have a diverse, deep understanding of approaches, methods, tools, case studies etc.
  • Use expertise to predict tipping points. Then monitor – and as problems arise help leaders see that they could have acted earlier.
  • How can we get customers, users etc to drive the use of better CPM techniques?

Provide access to education training, resources

  • Build a suite of case studies to illustrate both good and bad outcomes and compare the approaches taken. Must relevant to the audience.
  • Provide more education and training – especially project-specific methods and tools.
  • ICCPM could produce some sample case studies on how working on complexity could help with shared, global challenges.
  • Provide a handbook or aid-memoire in common-sense language, for deciding:
    • the level of complexity faced and
    • how best to respond

Apply more sophisticated approaches when possible

  • Implement measures/feedback on how well complexity methods are used when applicable. Perhaps a regular 3rd party systems capability review?
  • Work on systems rather than people. Don’t try to change people – change ‘project systems’ as a whole to be better set up to deal with complexity.
  • Work to educate, train, skills senior program and portfolio leaders at the same time as project stakeholders, over time. Use each to reinforce the other.
  • Use alliance arrangements to get customers and other stakeholders more involved in this process.

Group B appreciates the need for as diverse a range of inputs as possible, and initiated a survey of the Fellows of ICCPM to consider the best approach to gathering input from project managers and stakeholders. We were very pleased with the depth of thought provided by the ICCPM Fellows. Richard Barber has undertaken an analysis of those responses, see above.

The full risk mapping and analysis is available on the forum. Many thanks to the ICCPM Fellows who added their insights to this important question.

Group B members have posted many insights and suggestions on the forum, and all members of ICCPM are encouraged to participate in these discussions. Please have a look and join the Forum. We are seeking more diverse inputs, as we suspect effective and fresh responses may well come from those who are not so embedded in the topic.

Going Forward

The MRC SIG will hold its second full meeting in November, to review progress and to decide next steps, including for the two working groups.

Right now, both of our working groups are seeking additional inputs and insights. There are no obligations, so you can feel free to comment and/or join meetings if and when you want to.

Please have a look at the MRC SIG Forum and register to join in.