Complicated or Complex? Classifying Projects

Complicated or Complex

How would you define them?

Several years ago I would have thought they were nearly the same thing.

Apparently, they are slightly different.  

In a recent study on the relationship between IT Project Complexity, Complication and Success, David J Williamson drew a distinction between complication and complexity by defining complication as related to:

  • Factors of scale, including extensive and detailed requirements
  • Large and geographically dispersed project teams
  • High project cost, and
  • Long project durations

In contrast, complexity emerges when

  • Project objectives are not clearly defined
  • Requirements are unclear and volatile
  • The project incorporates significant technological or organizational change, or
  • The project environment has extensive political and social influences, dependencies and constraints

Sounds like fun, huh?

Several years ago I would have thought that the dispersed project teams and the scale of a project would have qualified it as complex.  At a minimum those characteristics would have made communications and tracking progress difficult and complicated the execution of the project.  Teams working on opposite end of the clock have to work harder to share information and share a common purpose. But problems like these can be solved with standard PMBOK tools & techniques.

A project with constantly changing requirements or bleeding edge technology is complex by its nature: it’s harder to find a process that fits the way the team works and harder still to manage.  The distinction may not seem significant when you feel like pulling your hair out because of an issue, but it’s justified.  As the study found, complex projects “can behave in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.”  Because of a project’s complexity, you may be ‘changing your process as you go’ to get the work done.

In the end, I was convinced of the difference.
What do you think?  Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.


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