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New (yet not so new) techniques for managing complexity in projects

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Over the last year or so I have written several posts on project complexity , most of which are based on papers published in trade and research journals. From my reading of the literature,  it seems that most of the  research on complexity in projects is aimed at answering one of the following questions:

  1. Can projects be viewed as complex systems?
  2. What makes projects complex to manage?

The first approach starts out with  well-established concepts from the theory of complex systems and attempts to apply these to projects and project management. The second starts from the other end, using  data to build models of complexity in projects. The two strands are complementary: one involves theory and concepts, the other empirical modelling. There is a third way – one  that is purely pragmatic: it proposes practical techniques to manage complexity, on the basis of the demonstrated utility of these practices in a few representatives cases. In this situation, theories are too general to be applicable, and model building isn’t possible because of the small number of data points. In this post I look at a paper by  Christian Berggren, Jack Jarkvik and Jonas Soderlund  entitled, Lagomizing, Organic Integration and Systems Emergency Wards: Innovative Practices in Managing Complex Systems Development Projects, that takes this third approach.  I review the paper, emphasising the practices presented by the authors. I also draw connections between the practices suggested and those that are already well-known and accepted in the software development world.

The authors begin by pointing out that although researchers have recognised the need for flexible, adaptive approaches to project management, most of the work is  “…overly general in character and lacks grounded suggestions for effective managerial practices…”  To address this, they take a practice-based approach wherein they present three techniques that have been used in complex telecom systems development projects at Ericsson. The three practices address the need to reduce complexity, understand complexity and rapidly act on the consequences of complexity respectively. They are:

  • Lagomising: a top-down approach to redefining project goals and transforming expectations based on the simplest possible design to achieve the core product functionality. The term lagomising is derived from the Swedish word lagom, which (according to the authors) means just right.
  • Organic Integration: a visual technique to help everyone on the team develop a shared understanding of system capabilities or functionalities.
  • Systems Emergency Ward: A high-visibility forum for managing errors and making associated decisions.

I describe each of the techniques below, followed by some comments which draw connections between these techniques and those already in use within the software development community.


According to the authors, “Mainstream project management often portrays delivery on time and according to specifications to be the keys for successful project management. However, according to our experience, it is normally not possible to meet both delivery time and specified customer requirements.” To this, I would add that customer specifications are often not entirely clear, leaving much open to interpretation by the project team.

The authors suggest that this issue can be successfully tackled via lagomising: a top-down driven reduction of specifications that does not involve the customer. Lagomising is not to be interpreted as  a license to cut down on functionality (which obviously would not be acceptable to the customer). Instead, it is a simplification of specifications; paring down of unnecessary “fat”, whilst keeping the essential functionality intact. The authors explain that another aim is to, “…drive down designers’ interpretations of specifications from technical perfection to the simplest possible levels…

To summarise, the benefits of lagomising are:

  1. Clarification of unclear specifications.
  2. Reduction or elimination of over-interpretation of specifications by the project team.
  3. Addition of value by delivering useful functionality, albeit that which may differ somewhat from the original customer specification.

In absence of customer input, the task of  lagomising falls to the project manager. As the authors state, “…project management takes on the task of delimiting scope, imposing non-negotiable constraints and reducing complexity…”  Furthermore, since liberties have been taken with the original specification, it is imperative that the customer approval is obtained early in the game. Providing key functionality requested by the customer is retained, this should not be too hard. Any refinements and “nice to haves”  (aka bells and whistles) should be postponed to the next phase.

Organic Integration

Organic integration begins with the premise that, “nothing is right from the beginning and traditional project plans are never sufficient.” This is simply an articulation of the well-known conundrum faced by project managers working with complicated projects: much about the deliverables is unknown at the start, but traditional project plans require that everything be known. This contradiction is particularly stark when technologies involved are complex, new or changing.But problems remain even when everything is known – one often finds that initial certainties dissolve into a morass of uncertainties as the project progresses. The traditional approach to dealing with complexity is to decompose deliverables using a work breakdown structure, and then apportion work packages to individuals or sub-teams. Although this may be the only way to proceed in very large projects, it is generally hard to achieve such a decomposition because of the complex interdependencies between components. Furthermore, a consequence partitioning the work in this way is that the project team will lack a shared understanding of the whole system.  Such a collective view of the system is important on complex projects.

Based on their experience, the authors suggest developing a collective view based on functionality rather than function.  Put another way: the system should be viewed in terms of what it does rather than what it is made up of. This method of visualising the system, termed system anatomy, has been described in a paper by Lars Taxen and Joachim Lillieskold, published in the ALOIS 2005 Conference Proceedings (see page 38 of the document).

According to the authors, organic integration starts with taking a system anatomy view and then identifying and building basic functionality first. More complex functionality is built later in short iterations. At every step continual integration (with what has been build to date) and testing is carried out.  Such an incremental approach towards complexity ensures that unforeseen issues and problems are flushed out in a manageable way. Learnings can be assimilated by the team, and the plan refined.

The suggested approach radically different from the work or product breakdown structures recommended by traditional methodologies.  The system anatomy / organic integration approach attempts to develop a shared understanding of the system based on non-decomposable functional interdependencies. The resulting project  plan does not have a cast-iron schedule. It is based, instead, on incremental steps that must be followed in order to achieve the total functionality of the system.

Systems Emergency Ward

According to the authors, the challenge of handling errors on any complex project is akin to that of “navigating in tricky and misty waters.” This metaphor would be very familiar to those who have worked on software projects of any complexity: any changes to existing code runs the the risk of introducing regressions.

In Ericsson, this challenge is dealt with using an approach called Systemakut, which means System Emergency Ward. The basic idea is simple (and I suspect, is used in many shops): project managers and system specialists meet daily to discuss, prioritise and action all errors reported. The forum should include representatives from all relevant areas (sub-systems, specialisations or whatever) and management. The presence of management is important because it emphasises that error resolution is important in the big scheme of things. Since corrective actions may introduce new errors, the preference should always be to introduce the smallest number of changes possible, ensuring that these do indeed improve sytem capabilities.

On a related note, the authors also draw attention to the fact that, in the telecom industry, “new requirements are frequently added during the development time, and delivery time unstable. Nevertheless projects are required to deliver on short notice and still have complete knowledge regarding the usefulness, functionality and properties of the system delivered.” A consequence is that a system in development must be tested regularly and under realistic conditions to ensure that it works as expected. Such a practice keeps regression errors under control. It makes a case for frequent system builds – a practice already in place in many software development shops.

Concluding Remarks

Having read this far, I’m sure many readers would be going, “Hey, we already do that.”  I have deliberately held back on commenting (well, almost!), but can’t help but notice that elements of the practices described by the authors are routinely used by many software development teams. For example:

  1. Some of the practices described in organic integration are already followed inIterative/Incremental approaches to software development
  2. The system emergency ward technique incorporates regular system builds, a practice recommended by some agile methodologies.

To be fair the authors do mention that, “Several novel methods such as Scrum and Agile Project Management have been suggested. In several ways, these methods have been driven by technological development and opportunities within the software industry…From a research-oriented perspective, however, relatively few of these new practices are based on well-founded empirical analyses.” I’d say that’s a fair summary of the status of these methods.  But here’s the problem –  the practices proposed in the paper, being based on a small number of experiences in a single organisation,  aren’t based on “well-founded empirical analyses” either. So where does that leave us? 

Here’s the situtation as I see it: the practices are interesting and they work (as attested to by the authors and the experience of many agile development shops), but they don’t have empirical backing (i.e.  the claims haven’t been quantified or validated by statistical studies). At this point readers may say,  “So what? We don’t care about proof as long as the practices work.”  And, you know what?  I’d have to agree.


Berggren, Christian.,  Jarkvik, Jack, & Soderlund, Jonas., Lagomizing, Organic Integration, and Systems Emergency Wards: Innovative Practices in Managing Complex Systems Development Projects, Project Management Journal, 39 (Supplement), S111-S122. (2008).

Written by K

September 28, 2008 at 11:09 pm

The sneak, the subversive, the shirk and the self-promoter

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The presence of a bad apple in a team can have a significant negative effect on collective performance and morale. Unfortunately, many managers fail to do anything about these folks until it is too late. Often this happens because they fail to foresee the rot that can be wrought by these individuals. In this post I focus on four types of “rotten apples” I’ve come across. Coincidentally, these characters are best characterised by nouns that begin with the letter S.  Now, S also happens to be the symbol for entropy which in social terms is defined as, “a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration.” This is apt, as these folks can contribute to and even accelerate the decline of a team. So here they are, the sneak, the subversive, the shirk and the self-promoter1

  • The sneak: This is the guy who carries tales of your alleged wrong-doing to levels above. He’s dangerous because he has the confidence of a senior manager, whom he regularly regales with stories of your incompetence. His version of events – which may or may not have any relation to the truth – is designed to make you, the manager, look as bad as possible. Unfortunately, because of his connections, one has to be careful when tackling the sneak.
  • The subversive: Closely related to the sneak, the subversive is the revolutionary who foments turmoil within the team. He does this by spreading stories of an unsettling kind. These are crafted for shock value – for instance, one could be built around a rumour that the company is about to indulge in a bout of downsizing (and the project team are candidates) or that project funding is about to be cut. These folks tend to tone down their activities once they’re aware that their penchant for stirring things up is known. So the best way to handle a subversive is to confront him.
  • The shirk: This fellow is the teflon-man as far as work is concerned. He is seemingly able to avoid any tasks that require him to work at his full capacity. Yet, even though he is under-worked, he’s always late in completing his tasks. He manages to get away with it by palming off the responsibility for the delay on to an unsuspecting team member – “I couldn’t finish because Jake didn’t give me X in time” (where X is just any old Xcuse) or even the odd force majeure. So one’s stuck with the shirk because it’s never his fault. The best way to handle the shirk is to give him work and monitor progress closely. This is one situation where  micromanagement (as bad as it is) may actually be necessary.
  • The self-promoter: This gent is always in the background when work is doled out, but right at the front to claim credit- more so when senior management’s around. He thrives on accepting kudos for work that someone else did. In the unlikely event that he does something significant, you can be sure that the entire organisation will hear about it for the next few years. The strange thing is that this tactic quite often works. Through relentless self-promotion, the self-promoter rises through the corporate hierarchy much faster than his quieter colleagues. The self-promoter is best handled by giving him only as much attention as is his due – which isn’t very much at all.

Managing teams implies managing people. However, most folks don’t really need to be managed because they’re competent at what they do, and go about doing their jobs in a generally diligent manner. The characters I’ve listed above are exceptions: watch out for them, manage them.  You ignore them at your own peril.


1 Although the post refers to these folks using masculine nouns and pronouns, needless to say they can be of either gender.

Written by K

September 23, 2008 at 8:07 pm

A model of project complexity

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The lack of a clear definition of project complexity has lead to much confusion amongst project management academics and practitioners regarding what makes a project complex to manage. A recent paper by Harvey Maylor, Richard Vidgen and Stephen Carver, entitled Managerial Complexity in Project-Based Operations: A Grounded Model and Its Implications for Practice, is a step towards changing this situation. In the paper Maylor and his co-workers  present a qualitative empirical model which captures both structural (static) and dynamic1 elements of  managerial complexity in projects. I summarise and review the paper below.

Background and Objectives

The authors make the observation that project management methodologies (as codified in the various “bodies of knowledge”) contain what is deemed as accepted practice rather than best practice.  The point being that there is never any proof offered that the practice in question is indeed the best, or even better than others. Such proof is impossible because methodologies are highly prescriptive and  ignore context (i.e. the particular environment and quirks of individual projects).  This dogmatic, “our way is the best way” attitude is inconsistent with the diversity of situations and factors that make projects hard to manage. Hence the need to develop a understanding of what makes a project complex.

It may thus be helpful to consider projects as complex adaptive systems. As a first step, the authors discuss various characterstics of such systems, in particular those that might apply to projects. I have covered much of this material in an earlier post, so my coverage here will be brief. The main points the authors make are as follows:

  1. The components of a complex system interact and produce outcomes that are unpredictable and nonlinear.
  2. One cannot understand a complex system by studying the individual components that comprise it.
  3. A complex system displays path dependence (i.e. dependence on history) and sensitivity to initial conditions.
  4. Adaptive systems can change and “learn” from experience.

There have been several models of project complexity proposed by researchers. Each of these propose various dimensions (or factors) that capture complexity. Some of these factors are:

  1. The number of physical elements of a project and their interdependencies. (Baccarini)
  2. Organisational, technical and resource complexity.
  3. Organisational and technical complexity, and structural and dynamic interactions between the two. (Xia and Lee)

Although earlier models have been useful, organisations have found that other factors (unaccounted for in existing models) contribute to managerial complexity in projects. With this in mind, the authors’ aim to develop a comprehensive empirical model of managerial complexity in projects and thus answer the question: What makes a project complex to manage?

The Model

The  model  was developed through workshops that involved a large number of practising project managers. I will not go into details of research methodology here; please see the original paper for details.  What is important to note is that the model includes input from a broad range of practitioners. With that said, I’ll move straight on to a description of the model.

The model describes both structural and dynamic elements of managerial complexity. The authors find that structural complexity in projects comprises of the following broad dimensions: Mission,  Organisation, Delivery, Stakeholders and Team. Following a distinctly academic penchant for acronymisation (to coin a term), the authors call their model MODeST, taking the first letter or two from each of the above dimensions.

The hierarchy below lists each of the above dimensions along with their sub-dimensions. Further, the lowest level of the hierarchy (sub-dimension level) lists representative questions that can be used to characterise each sub-dimension.  (Note: Please see the paper for full details).

  • Mission
    • Objectives
      • Is there a clear vision?
      • Are the goals clear?
    • Scale
      • Long timescale?
      • Large number of resources?
    • Uncertainty
      • Are there interdependencies with other projects?
      • Are there interdependencies within the project?
      • Does it involve new technology?
      • Has the project been done before?
    • Constraints
      • Are there legislative or compliance constraints?
  • Organisation
    • Time
      • Are there multiple timezones?
    • Space
      • Are team members colocated?
      • Is there face-to-face communication between team members?
    • Geography
      • Are there multiple languages?
    • Project / organisation fit
      • Is there a mismatch between project team structure and organisational structure?
    • Organisational change
      • Does the project involve organisational restructuring?
  • Delivery
    • Administration
      • Is project reporting accurate, adequate and does information get to people who need it?
      • Is project data collection accurate, true and complete.
    • Decision Making
      • Is there effective governance of project decision making?
      • Are too many levels of management involved in decision making?
    • Change management
      • Is the change management process cost effective?
      • Is it flexible?
    • Project processes
      • Are project processes defined, standardised but not overly bureaucratic?
      • Is there a clear responsibility for tasks and deliverables?
    • Project management methodology
      • Is there a common methodology used throughout the project?
    • Resources – Human
      • Are human resources shared across projects?
      • Who controls human resources for the project?
      • Does the project manager have control over resource selection?
    • Resources –  Technology
      • Does the project have tool support?
    • Resources – Financial
      • How flexible is the project budget?
  • Stakeholders
    • Stakeholder Identification
      • How many stakeholders are there?
      • Are there any unidentified stakeholders?
    • Support for project
      • Do stakeholder groups interfere with the project?
      • Do stakeholders have sufficient time for the project?
      • Do they respond to project needs in a timely manner?
    • Relationship basis
      • Is the relationship between the project and stakeholders contractual?
    • Experience
      • Do the stakeholders have realistic expectations of the project?
      • Do they have domain experience?
      • Do they have project management experience?
    • Power
      • Do the stakeholders have power to make decisions.
    • Key stakeholders
      • Is there senior management support?
    • Sociopolitical
      • Are there hidden agendas or unsurfaced assumptions?
      • Do stakeholders have conflicting priorities?
      • Are there any conflicts between requirements of different stakeholders?
    • Interdependencies
      • Are there interdependencies between stakeholders? (e.g. between suppliers)
  • Team
    • Project staff
      • Do team members have sufficient prior experience?
        Does the project involve multiple technical disciplines and languages?
      • Are the team members knowledgeable and competent in all aspects of the project (business, technical and project management)?
      • Are the team members motivated?
    • Project manager
      • Is the project manager an effective communicator?
      • Does the project manager have authority?
    • Group
      • Are there cultural differences between team members?
      • Are there personality clashes or is there any rivalry within the team?
      • Does the team have a shared vision for the project?

The above dimensions and sub-dimensions characterise the structure of managerial complexity in projects. However, that isn’t all: the authors mention that many workshop respondents emphasised that elements (i.e dimensions) that make up the model interact thereby “multiplying” managerial complexity. This is one aspect of dynamic complexity. The authors also note that interactions can occur within a single element – for example, within interdependencies between suppliers and stakeholders. Analysis of the data showed that there is a dynamic element corresponding to every structural element of the model. Further still, dynamics of an individual structural element can be affected by interactions with other structural and dynamic elements. That is, the dynamics of one part of the system can be altered by other changes in other parts. The model thus captures structural, dynamic and interactive aspects of managerial complexity in projects.

The authors report that workshop participants also recognised their own role in adding to managerial complexity. For example, a project manager who fails to recognise task dependencies in early stages of a project contributes to complexity down the line. Project managers are thus, ” key actors embedded within the conceptualisation of the complexity of their projects rather than external observers.” The authors suggest that this indicates that many elements of managerial complexity can in fact be tamed by proper management. That, arguably, is what a project manager’s job is all about.

Implications and Discussion

The authors observe that projects are ubiquitous within organisations. Yet, current project management practices as codified in well-known methodologies fail to account for variations in context between projects. Managerial complexity varies with (and is defined by) a particular project’s context – for instance, a project may have several stakeholders with conflicting requirements whereas another may have only one stakeholder. The model developed by the authors describes managerial complexity using five dimensions and several sub-dimensions. These structural elements can change in time and also interact with each other, so the model is also capable of describing dynamic complexity in projects.

To illustrate expand on the last point of the previous paragraph, consider stakeholders – the “S” in the MoDest acronym. The authors point out that, “from an organisational theory perspective, a project can be seen as being constituted from the entire set of relationships it has with itself and with its stakeholders.” Project managers need to understand not only the power and legitimacy of each of the stakeholders, but also the relationships or interactions between them.  Moreover, the relationships between stakeholders evolve in time – i.e they are dynamic. Similarly, the other four dimensions of the model also display dynamic behaviour.

This dynamic behaviour is merely a restatement of the obvious:  in projects things change, sometimes rather quickly and unexpectedly. Standard project management practice offers techniques such as risk management, configuration management and change control to manage these. However, the authors suggest their data shows that,  “the nature of change considered by existing approaches is limited and that such programmatic responses may be inappropriate.” They go on to state, “Such dissatisfaction with traditional requirements engineering and command-and-control project management strategies has lead to an interest in agile project management approaches.” These statements will ring true for  those who have been burned by  the limitations of traditional project management methodologies.  Agile techniques embrace change; traditional methodologies seek to control it (and do so unsuccessfully, one might add).  The implicit acceptance of change in agile methodologies make it consistent with the dynamic model of managerial complexity proposed by the authors.


The paper describes an empirical model of managerial complexity in projects. From my (admittedly incomplete) reading of the literature, the model is more comprehensive than those that have been proposed heretofore. Further, it captures structural, dynamic and interactive aspects of elements that make a project complex and hard to manage. The model challenges current practice as embodied in traditional, “big-bang” approaches to running projects, but is consistent with Iterative/Incremental methodologies which form the basis of agile techniques.

The authors end with a brief description of some areas for further research. Some of these include:

  • Refining the dimensions of complexity and finding the key drivers of each.
  • Determining whether compexity can be quantified.
  • Exploring the possibility of managing complexity.

We are still a long way off answering these questions, and thus developing a quantitative, controllable understanding of project complexity. Yet, the model presented provides at least a partial answer to the question: What makes a project complex to manage?


Maylor, Harvey.,  Vidgen, Richard, & Carver, Stephen., Managerial Complexity in Project-Based Operations: A Grounded Model and Its Implications for Practice, Project Management Journal, 39 (Supplement), S15-S26. (2008).


1 See this post for more on structural and dynamic complexity.

Written by K

September 18, 2008 at 11:08 pm

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