Complexity is an indicator of the inter-relationships within a project, programme or portfolio that affect the way it will be managed and the skills needed to manage it. Since all projects, programmes and portfolios are made up of many inter-related functions and processes they are all, by the dictionary definition, complex. But of course some are more complex than others.

There is recognition that degrees of complexity require different managerial approaches and skills but there is no absolute scale of measurement. To a large degree complexity is in the eye of the beholder.

While there are attempts within the profession to define complex and non-complex work in a binary way, Praxis takes the view that complexity is a continuous scale applicable to different areas of P3 management. Degrees of complexity influence the way that functions, methods and competencies are tailored.

Projects and programmes exhibit differing degrees of complexity. Portfolios have a degree of inherent complexity due to their scale but mainly reflect the complexity of their component projects and programmes.

Commonly identified areas of complexity for projects and programmes include:

  • Scope
  • This perhaps is the most obvious area of complexity. It can range from the production of a single output to the delivery of a complex concoction of inter-related outputs, outcomes and benefits and all points in-between.

  • Complexity of scope should not be confused with scale. The construction of a major road may take a long time and cost a great deal but be less complex (in terms of scope) than a much smaller exercise in business change, with associated technology and social change.
  • It is the complexity of scope that is most influential in the choice of life cycle and method. In short, the choice as to whether a piece of work will be managed as a project or programme is primarily based on the complexity of the scope.

  • Uncertainty
  • All projects and programmes are, by definition, uncertain. Project and programme management is, therefore, designed to manage uncertainty. This can sometimes give the impression that the discipline is trying to remove uncertainty before embarking on a project or programme. That is not the case. If no endeavour was ever undertaken without removing uncertainty then very little would be done.

  • One way of managing uncertainty of scope is to use a parallel rather than a linear life cycle so that objectives can evolve throughout the life cycle.

    Project and programme management embraces uncertainty but must be tailored to ensure that the methods, techniques and resources used are appropriate for the level of uncertainty inherent in the work.

    Uncertainty may relate to initial assumptions; predictability of outcomes; stability of specifications and a host of other factors.

  • Change
  • Some non-complex projects do not involve any management of change at all. Other projects and programmes will require individuals and groups to change the way they live or work, permanently or just for the duration of the work.

    The amount of change can be viewed in terms of its breadth and its depth.

  • The breadth of change relates to the number and range of people who will be required to change. The broader the change, the larger the stakeholder community and the wider the range of support and opposition to the work. The work may only affect a small number of people in a single department or a large community covering multiple disciplines or organisations on an international scale.

  • The depth of change refers to the degree to which people have to change or the impact it has upon them. Examples of significant change are where business change leads to loss of jobs or an infrastructure project displaces people from their homes.

  • Innovation
  • Innovation can be viewed as innovation in the technical approach to the work or innovation in the management methods.

  • Technical innovation is the more obvious. In a world where technology moves at an ever increasing pace, there will always be projects and programmes that either create the new technology or are the first to put it into practice.

    It is also important to consider ‘innovative’ as a relative term.

    What is innovative for one organisation may not be so innovative for another. An organisation that is very mature at delivering projects may have never delivered a programme before, so to that organisation, programme management is an innovative approach and is therefore complex.

  • Dynamics
  • The degree of complexity in a project or programme is, of course, subject to change. The web of inter-relationships will vary over the life cycle. Some work operates in a stable environment while some is subject to many kinds of external change whether it be political, social, technical or so on.


Any attempt to categorise so many inter-related aspects of a project, programme or portfolio is bound to be purely illustrative. Different sources list different areas of complexity and there is no definitive model. In fact attempting to define a general and definitive model is a somewhat pointless exercise since complexity itself is so complex.

Where complexity models can work well is in a closed environment, e.g. an organisation may develop a complexity model for its own range of work. This can help with decisions like matching a project with a suitably experienced project manager or how much investment should be made in the governance infrastructure.

Ultimately the point of understanding complexity is to understand the diversity of work that can be tackled with P3 management and the vital need to tailor all aspects of the discipline to specific circumstances.



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24th March 2015Link to Italian page added
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