A Complex Project is not Complicated

Is your project complicated or complex?

While the words complicated and complex are often used interchangeably, they have quite different meanings. And that difference has a profound impact on how you should manage your project.

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An example of something complicated would be to re-assemble all the tiny parts of a Swiss wristwatch. In order to do so, you would require a good instruction manual and proper tools. Even then, you may need a Swiss wristwatch expert to help guide you through some of the assembly process. With patience, however, it is a predictable process and can be done.

In a project context, a complicated project is one that may have many moving parts but has obvious patterns allowing it to be managed in a sequential manner. The processes, while including variables, can be broken into component parts and managed. An example is a hospital moving inpatients and staff to a new site. It can be planned in a sequential manner with external experts hired to help with processes unfamiliar to the organization. Using this example, consulting services might be used to assist with logistics planning.  For projects which are complicated, the linear processes of tradition project management tools and methods works well.


An example of something complex would be raising children. I have two sons, four years difference to the month in age. While I had experience raising my first son by the time my second son was born, I could not have pre-planned repeating the same process of raising my second exactly as I had the first. Raising children often involves in-the-moment decision-making and ‘problem solving’.

It is the same with projects. A complex project is identified by the high level and shear number of interacting variables which impacts decision-making over the course of the project. Sargut and McGrath (2011) published in HBR the now classic article Learning to live with complexity. They identified three properties associated with complexity, which are:

  • multiplicity – the number of potentially interacting elements
  • interdependence – how connected those elements are
  • diversity – degree of their heterogenity

Example of a Complex Building Project

In a new hospital construction project I had been involved, we identified 37 different high-level stakeholders, including multiple government agencies and governmental authorities with various (and sometimes conflicting) regulatory and accreditation requirements. There were technical challenges building a modern hospital with many interoperable building systems, medical systems, sophisticated medical equipment and IT systems; the political challenges with many stakeholders; the diverse range of expertise from medical equipment planners, site planners, designers, general and sub-contractors, and internal stakeholder requirements all interacting towards the same goal making it very complex.

Complexity breeds uncertainty. Uncertainty does not allow for the project to progress in a predictable, linear fashion. It requires in-the-moment decision-making and problem-solving throughout the project lifecycle. Traditional project management tools and methods alone, therefore, are not reliable.

Projects such as the example of the new hospital building project can have both complicated and complex issues running at time. The key is to identify whether the issue at hand is complicated or complex and apply the appropriate management tools and decision-making process. Sargut and McGrath identified methods to deal with complexity, such as simulation forecasting and combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms of analysis.

In upcoming articles I will discuss methods I suggest to best manage projects combining hard (technical) and soft skills.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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