The new practice guide about navigating project complexity from PMI is 113 pages about working on difficult projects. But how do you know if it applies to your project? After all, what makes a project complex? First, it’s worth noting that PMI talks about projects ‘impacted by complexity’ rather than complex projects. With that in mind, let’s look at the three areas that could bring complexity to your projects.

Human behavior

First up, PMI says that human behavior is a big source of complexity on projects. This for me is a bit problematic, as all projects are affected by human behavior! Really what PMI are talking about in this practice guide are the challenges of organizational politics that hinder your ability to agree on clear project objectives. For example:

  • Stakeholders with unrealistic expectations
  • Stakeholders who misunderstand or disagree with the project’s goals
  • Poor or missing executive sponsorship
  • Hidden agendas
  • Ethical dilemmas such as bribes
  • Stakeholders who step down or are removed during the project creating instability
  • Critical information being withheld deliberately.

System behavior

The practice guide describes a system as a collection of different components that together produce results not achievable by the components alone. The more connections between components you have, the more complex the whole thing becomes. There are also dependencies on different areas of the system, for example in projects that have a high degree of overlap or dependency on other projects and programmes. This requires skilled working between the relevant teams to design work packages that deal with these dependencies as they cannot truly be independent. The final ‘system’ element of complexity is the dynamics between different areas. It’s hard to see exactly what the difference is between this and other areas of system behaviour if you ask me, but PMI defines it as the connections and dependencies over time i.e. how the areas you have already identified may shift as the project progresses. It’s important to note that system complexity does not automatically equal technology complexity, although if you are dealing with complex IT systems then they will certainly have a part to play.


The final facet of complexity that the practice guide covers is ambiguity. This is about dealing with unclear situations and could arise because you don’t know what to expect or because something happens are you are unclear about how to respond to it.

Emergent ambiguity arises as unanticipated change that occurs within the context of a project. It is the result of all those shifting dynamics and interactions. Essentially, it’s about how you manage positive and negative risks on a project.

An example of emergent ambiguity is where an issue occurs and the resulting situation changes how you progress with the project – like if you decide to launch to a particular demographic and after a pilot realise that you should be incorporating other demographics too. This would be a shift in the project’s deployment strategy and you’d be facing emergent ambiguity while you worked out what to do about it. Uncertainty arises when you don’t know what to do about something.

There are things that you can’t know about on a project and when they do happen you could be faced with uncertainty for some time. Your project can generate uncertainty, for example as a result of the actions of a stakeholder, or be subject to uncertainty, such as changing market positions.

Being able to deal with uncertainty is a key factor for project managers facing difficult, complex projects as it can be quite uncomfortable to live in an environment where it feels as if you can’t control anything!

Of course, your project might have periods of relative stability, where you have dealt with the ambiguity, have a grip on the problems caused by your team and are managing the issues created by systems and processes.

And then just when you think you’ve got it all under control… you’ll be hit by a stage in the project where none of those things are true and you lurch from problem to problem!

Being able to deal with this and bounce back from the issues is essential if you want to manage difficult and complex projects successfully. What other tips for dealing with complexity do you have?

Let us know in the comments.