Towards the Development of a Holistic Framework of Project Complexity: A Literature Based Review

Towards the Development of a Holistic Framework of Project Complexity: A Literature Based Review

Saleem Gul (Institute of Management Sciences, Peshawar, Pakistan)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/IJRCM.2019040101
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Project complexity proves to be a difficult concept to grasp, especially for those new to the topic. This article provides a rapid yet thorough review of the concepts of complexity for those research students, researchers, or project professionals who may be interested in working with or studying complex projects. This article is developed using a traditional literature review process and uses a funneled or top-down approach to present the ontological view point of complexity. The article first discusses complexity in general and then moves on differentiate between simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic systems. The discussion then focuses on complexity in projects, from where the perspective of ‘complexity of' projects and ‘complexity in' projects. The article concludes by presenting an extended and deeper framework of complexity that amalgamates previously known thoughts on project complexity, uncertainty, and schema theory.
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Project management is a fairly new discipline, originating in the chemical industry of the 1930s (Williams, 2002) in DuPont Corporation (Hornstein, 2015). Project management gained acceptance as a ‘practitioners discipline’ in the post-WWII developments taking place in the domains of technology and infrastructure (Svetlana Cicmil & Damian Hodgson, 2006, p. 3). In the years following the publication of the first academic article on project management by Gaddis (1959), the discipline has made significant strides on various fronts, such as: operations management, information systems, conflict and negotiations, relationships, success, risk etc. In recent years, particularly after the publication of Cicmil and Hodgson’s (2006) Making Projects Critical, the discipline’s focus has turned towards an introspective critical examination through the lens of complexity.

Project management has been a target of sufficient criticism for its failure to deliver projects on time, within budget, and within acceptable bounds of quality. The brunt of the criticism, emerging propositions, and recent research trajectories are focused on the failure of traditional project management as it applies to contemporary project environments (Cicmil, Cooke-Davies, Crawford, & Richardson, 2009). Other authors have argued similarly, contending that traditional project management methodologies founded on control system thinking are no longer sufficient (Padalkar & Gopinath, 2016; Remington & Crawford, 2004; Remington & Pollack, 2008). It is therefore necessary to discuss projects from an alternative perspective i.e. that of complexity. However, this does not require starting anew by any means, as it has been argued that complexity theory of the form applied to organizations may be applied to projects (Remington & Pollack, 2008).

A general consensus found within the project management literature is that it is difficult to produce a precise definition of a complex project (Daniel & Daniel, 2018). Within the various definitions of complexity there exists a common theme of a number of parts or components and the interrelationships between them. Klaus and Liebscher (1979) definition of complexity, originating from the cybernetics camp, clarifies that ‘complexity is a character of a system defined by the type and number of relations existing between the elements, in contrast to the elaborateness of a system that is related to the number of different elements’. A hint of what these interrelationships are can be found in a helpful definition provided by the College of Complex Project Managers (2006) which states that ‘complex projects are open systems and are characterized by recursiveness and non-linear feedback loops, which make them sensitive to small differences in initial conditions and emergent changes’. The College goes on to identify certain characteristics of complex projects that differentiate them from traditional projects, these are: Complex projects are to some degree disorderly, instable, emergent, non-linear, recursive, uncertain, irregular, and random. Such systems, exhibit dynamic complexity where the interactions between the various elements comprising projects are varied and undefined; and there is uncertainty in objectives and methods. The reader may be interested to know that the College has now been renamed as the ‘International Center for Complex Project Management’ and is based at the Australian National University.

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