What makes a project complex? And why is complex project management such a hot topic?

The International Centre for Complex Project Management website states that ... "Some projects are now so complex that a different management approach is needed to break the all too common cycle of delay, cost overruns and failure." The work of the ICCPM based in Australia is to look at complex projects and their common failings, and to search for conceptual and/or practical solutions to improve on the deficits. Or something like that. So how many of us are actually involved in managing complex projects?

It has been argued that complex projects are those that are characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty and have multiple or dynamic interfaces, and may have significant external or political influences. Such projects usually run over timescales which exceed the technology cycle time of the prevailing technologies, and can only be defined by effect rather than by solution. There is thus significant risk involved, and softer skills such as communication skills are clearly important. Thus engaging stakeholders is likely to be a challenge (see our PROMSG Spring School 2012 for more coverage on this). I have been involved in several projects that meet this definition, although they were not mission critical or large budget projects, but they did have significant implications in terms of business change and intended benefits. Working across cultures and multi-lingual interfaces was particularly challenging, and long before solutions were agreed on then implemented, a lot of project time and effort needed to be devoted to making friends and allies for project buy-in, and bringing senior people on board. Sound like a project you are working on?

Professional bodies in project management also have definitions of 'complex project management', and project complexity clearly has emergent academic and theoretical underpinnings. Whether this converts to practical solutions that we can all use in multiple project domains remains to be seen, for example thinking about the metaphor of project management being like nailing jelly to a wall that is making inroads into the general PM consciousness. The answer is apparently to use a box. The question then arises is why would I want jelly in a box nailed on the wall in the first place? Ask the sponsors? And they will probably tell me that it is complicated ...