How complex is your project?

Uncertainty has always been a part of project work, which is natural due to the developmental nature of projects. We can talk about how much uncertainty each project contains, but uncertainty is usually hard to grasp and to work with.

One approach is to think about what type of uncertainties exist in the project and to what extent? The picture below shows 4 common uncertainty areas. By marking each axis as low, medium or high you can draw an uncertainty map for your project.

Illustration by Anders Djerf, from the book Leading in uncertain and complex projects


When it comes to complexity in projects, uncertainties from environment and dependencies are big drivers. Environment means both outside the company; with users, customers,  partners, authorities.. and inside the company from the governance, other operations, other projects, etc… Many project managers testify that uncertainties from the environment have increased greatly during the last 20 years. Here, as a project manager, you need to work a lot with stakeholder management (not just analysis) and realizing that we constantly need to keep one eye on the project and one on the environment. Regular, result-based interactions with the environment are not only good, they are necessary. Being able to make adjustment and changes without losing focus is a competitive advantage in a changing world.

On top of this, we have a lot of dependencies between the subprojects/working groups/team members that is non-linear. When supporting projects, we regularly illustrate this by representing the project and its sub-parts with people and then letting them use elastic bands to show who they need to talk to do their work and who needs their results.  This usually gives a strong impression, for all involved, about how many dependencies there are. Take a picture from above if you try it! The exercise shows that it is going to be useless to try to cope with all dependencies by yourself as a project manager. You’ll get caught in-between and become a bottleneck. It is also a good signal to all involved that we need to communicate directly and consistently. Trying to cope with complexity by only communicating at meetings is futile.

However, the biggest trap in dealing with complexity is to treat it like it is complicated. In a complicated system, if you have sufficient competence, there is a good way to do things and we can talk about best practice. In a complex system, there is no best practice. The way forward will differ each time, so what we can re-use is the way we think. In complicated systems we may make good use of detailed instructions and procedures, but in a complex system we need each actor to be competent enough and for them to focus on the interactions.


This article is based on Leading in uncertain and complex projects. For more information about complexity and how you can lead in complex projects, check out the book, or the podcast below.

Mats Ragnarsson is a Senior consultant at Wenell Management, and co-author of the book Leading in uncertain and complex projects.

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