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Project Complexity: Monitoring the Variables That Wreck Projects


One size fits all

Isn’t one size fits all the simplest option? You either take it, or you don’t. It might not be the best option, but at least there is no risk that it is the wrong product or service. That is why generic T-shirts for events all come in XL. It is not because everybody should wear that size. It is just easier that way… Well, at least for the organizer.

“One size fits all” is a simple view of life: one solution is appropriate to address the needs of everyone. It doesn’t matter if the simple view isn’t aligned with reality. This view may not be effective, but it is easy to manage.

A simple model for project management

This is something that happens too often in project management: the selection of a simple model applied to all projects. PMBOK is a long and comprehensive book, with a detailed explanation of the processes, tools and techniques. We would think that such a complex book would lead to a complex view of project management. Well, it definitely leads to a comprehensive view of project management.

What is the best way to manage a project? Our job as project managers is to be knowledgeable in all areas of project management. However, the application starts to suffer when the project manager uses a one size fits all approach. When it happens, all processes must be used fully and equally for all projects. The model is simple: no judgment, no analysis, whatever tools exist must be used.

The pressure to use a one-size fits all approach becomes even more important when the tools adopted by the organization to manage projects are mandatory and rigid. All projects of all sizes and all types must use exactly the same process. No analysis is required.

The model versus the reality

Theoretically, all the tools and processes are appropriate, so using them should be a simple, rational choice. It also makes the project fully compliant with the methodology. Unfortunately, this blind implementation lacks flexibility to adapt to the project.

We know that the beauty of project management is that it can be used in different fields, in different contexts, for projects of different size. It can be an epic construction project, a software design project, a technological innovation, or research completed by a very small team. As such, the project management theory is clearly designed to be useful for a very broad range of projects.

However, each project is unique, has its own requirements and lives within its own context. The success or failure of the project will happen in the reality of that context. It is important to design our project plan and approach and align it with the reality.

No project has the same profile. Applying all processes blindly makes the assumptions that all components of your project are complex.

Assessing project complexity

As a strategic project leader, it is essential to understand the complexity of your project. It will help you develop an appropriate project plan, create your project team, and optimize the approach to monitor and control progress.

You may be lucky and only perform very similar projects. I would still note that it is very rare that two projects are exactly the same. The complexity profile of each project may be different. It is important to not fall into the trap of making assumptions. It is much better to assess the project and establish a complexity profile. At least, the strategic choices will be intentional, and not based on assumptions.

Elements of complexity

I like to develop in the planning phase a complexity profile of the project. It guides the project team in selecting the right tools and techniques, aligned with the needs of that project. It also identifies the core elements requiring special attention. Dealing intentionally and proactively with these elements makes our actions more strategic and adds value for the client, sponsor, and various stakeholders.

Here are a few elements of complexity that should be considered in each of your projects. Monitoring them will create a complexity profile that will guide you and your team through the whole lifecycle of the project:

  • Legal environment
  • Intensity of competition in the market
  • Level of innovations
  • Size of the project team
  • Competency required by the project team as a whole, including subject matter experts
  • Procurement activities
  • Duration of a project
  • Uniqueness of the project
  • Financial analysis and requirements
  • Quantity and variety of stakeholders


Understanding the level of complexity of our projects is an important step to be strategic and to design a plan optimized for the needs of the project. The project management methodology is our toolbox. Just like any toolbox, it should not be used mindlessly.

Why focus on project complexity? Because elements of high complexity are often the ones requiring special attention. The definition of the project requirements should take into consideration these constraints.

In the end, the complexity profile will give us a clearer view of the terrain, allowing us to create customized solutions accordingly. This may not be as quick and easy a process as one size fits all, but it promises a much higher likelihood of project success.

Instead of working on the assumption that all projects are the same, it is much better to have a complexity profile of your project. It will then help develop a project plan and select tools and processes that are aligned with the project.


For more brilliant insights, check out Michel’s website: Project-Aria

About Michel Dion

Michel Dion is a CPA and PMP, living in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and 2 kids. He also has a certification in Internal Audit (CIA), Risk Management (CRMA) and Fraud (CFE). Michel has managed in his career many projects, including special initiatives and emergency projects. He is developing a website called Project-Aria, and is very active in the project management community on the web. The key areas of focus of Project-Aria are project management, leadership, productivity, mind and health, and career and training. He has loved technology since the moment he played on the TRS80 a while ago. Despite that, his two sons insist that they know more about technology than him. Sometimes, he will comment on other subjects, as he likes fitness, travel, chess, photography, and music. He also has a goal of mastering four languages: English, French, Spanish and Swedish. Pay Michel a visit at Project-Aria by clicking the button below.

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