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Most of what we do as project and program managers is inherently complex, if not always immediately obviously so, particularly at the start of a project.

The Complexity Curve

The key to understanding and managing that complexity can be found in a construct known as the Complexity Curve. You wont find anything on the complexity curve in established project management literature. Certainly not in PRINCE2 or MSP documentation. It doesn’t even have its own entry on Wikipedia.

The complexity curve captures the inherent difference between simplistic and simple, and how there are no shortcuts to moving between the two without paying a price. Consider the following graphic:

Complexity Curve

Figure 1: Complexity Curve

  • Point A (simplistic) – when projects are first incepted, people tend to underestimate their complexity and challenges. The idea is usually new, it’s energizing and motivating, and people just want to get on with it. At point A, our understanding is often simplistic. Plans formed at this stage are often insufficient to see the project through without substantial revision later on. They’re just not robust enough to deal with the actual complexities of the project.
  • Point B (complex) – as the project initiates and execution gets underway, things often change. Projects that start in an analysis phase naturally uncover previously unknown facts, issues, challenges, risks, new requirements. Previously ignored stakeholders get involved. The goalposts move. In short, the project’s complexity increases with time. It becomes complex in a way that the up-front planning did not account for. Plans are adjusted, additional resources brought to bear and complexity starts to reduce.
  • Point C (simple) – where the magic can start to happen. Plans, budgets, risk management strategies, all now take account of this new understanding. The more bullish amongst us can truly claim the challenges to be simple. Orderly project delivery commences.

Paying the price…

The journey from A, through B, to C can be painful, time-consuming and expensive. It’s tempting to think you can go straight to C. You cant. You simply can’t go directly from A to C without doing B – without paying the price.

Have a look back at the diagram above. Those of you who have read the explanation that followed will now understand it explicitly. You’ve paid the price. It’s simple. I’ve probably already lost those of you who just took a cursory look the graph, thought it looked simple, and carried on down to this point, skimming over the explanation. Your understanding of the complexity curve is simplistic.

…and what happens if you’re tempted not to…

That’s why Matt Ferguson’s recent post discussing why Generation Y types might not make the best project managers strikes such a chord. They want it now. They think they’re at C. They are actually at A. They’re not interested in B.

This evolution of perceived complexity is one of the reasons projects run info difficulty, start to slip, suffer cost overruns or ultimately fail. The actual complexity is much greater than the perceived simplicity at the time the plan was originally baselined. Plans, budgets and risk mitigation strategies put in place back then are likely to prove inadequate as complexity increases. It’s one of the reasons why project managers are compelled to re-evaluate and reiterate their plans regularly.

There’s also a direct link between the level of experience of the project manager and perceived complexity. Project managers with decades of experience are going to see much more of the intricacies, dependencies, risks and complexities, and do so far sooner than someone less experienced would (if at all, until they’re slapped around the face by them).

A project manager who’s somehow made the rapid leap from A to C, been rapidly promoted from project manager to program manager, for instance, just won’t always see the same complexities as someone who has gone via B and paid the price.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, the Associate Justice of the American Supreme Court, allegedly once wrote, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity”.

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