Complex Projects

By definition projects are unique – they are all different. Last week I wrote about VUCA Projects. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous projects. These need careful management. This blog will discuss what makes for a complex project.

Clearly there are small and large projects, leading up to complex projects. I wrote about Runner, Repeater, and Stranger projects indicating that in many cases although projects are different, many of the tasks will be identical.

One thing for sure, is that as projects get bigger, especially Complex Projects, there is more risk in achieving the desired business benefits.

Why do I need to Know about Complex Projects?

I have to assume that as a serious project manager you want to progress onto larger and more challenging projects. I recently wrote about The Skills Required for a Project Manager, and how to develop them. Moving onto ‘bigger’ projects will start to introduce some of the elements of complexity.

The APM requires that members work on Complex Projects for some of their qualifications. Application to Registered Project Professional (now closed) and ChPP – Chartered Project Manager Status – requires evidence of working on complex projects.

RPP logo

RPP logo

Therefore understanding what complexity in projects is, will not only help deliver the project, but also develop the project manager.

What is a Complex Project?

A complex project is complicated, difficult, with conflicting viewpoints from multiple stakeholders. Together with technical issues and inter-dependencies between various project elements. Last week when writing about VUCA projects, I mentioned the APM approach of a ‘Messy Project’ to capture all sorts of uncertainty and unknowns.

I think that defining the complexity may be the first part of trying to tidy up the project and better understand the complexity.

Complexity and How to Solve it!

The following bullets points represent the complexity factors on an APM Complexity Questionnaire. Dealing with these should reduce complexity in a project. That is not to say that it will be easy!

  • Objectives. The objectives need to be clearly defined. Where there are unknowns and ambiguity, state them until they become clear.
  • Stakeholders. Need to be fully identified, analysed and engaged. They may change often, so keep this analysis up-to-date.
  • Cultural and Social Context. International projects may bring cultural misunderstandings to the project. Make your own working practices and expectations clearly known.
  • Degree of Innovation. If the technical solution is unknown at the start of the project, then make that clear. Ensure that all stakeholders are bought into the technology route when it is finally agreed.
  • Project Co-Ordination Structure. The more people, stakeholders, and organisations involved in the project, the more complex the communication channels become. Ensure project communication is clearly planned.
  • Project Organisation. Consider not only your own project organisations, but the culture and set-up of the other organisations that the project has to interface with.
  • Leadership, Team-working and Decision Making. Try and keep a single clear leadership and a stable team. Accept conflict and deal with it openly. Have a clear decision making process.
  • Resources. Complex projects have multiple resources, often in short supply. Ensure that the resource bottlenecks are clearly identified. Ensure financing processes are understood.
  • Risks. Identify the risks, and keep identifying them as the project progresses. Look for the opportunities as well!
  • Methods and Tools. Familiar tools and methods will make the project easier to manage. Introduce now methods on simpler projects if possible.

It would be important not to pay ‘lip-service’ to these items. By definition a complex project needs to be managed more closely, and with greater detail than a normal project.


‘Disruption’ to existing processes and industries, the introduction of technology, and more team/organisation interactions are making projects more complex. Reduce the VUCA in your project to increase the chances of success.

A more agile and adaptive approach may be required for a complex project. Complex projects cannot be fully planned at the start, but would benefit from a clear phase driven approach.

Posted On: 20th July 2020

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