Knowing your project is complex is one thing. Effectively managing its complexity is something else. In this article, we look at how to manage the complexity in your project.


“The critical first step is understanding the complexity of the project”



From our experience, there are three steps to managing project complexity and effectively reducing the difficulty of your project:

1.  Measure the complexity in the project
2.  Review the project complexity, and refine your approach till you are comfortable with the balance between complexity and the outcomes you’ll achieve from successful delivery.
3(a). Put in place the right project controls, at the right levels.
3(b). Ensure you have the right competencies for the project.

Step 3 comprises of two key aspects: controls and competencies, which should be complementary and aligned, so they are mutually supportive.

We call this the C3 Model for Managing Complexity, and it was developed as a result of Helmsman’s Conquering Complexity research.

This simplified model illustrates the relationships between the 3 drivers.


How the C3 Model can enable project success

Step 1 – Start by measuring complexity

The first step is to assess the complexity of your project, and identify the key factors that are driving it.

And yes, complexity can be measured.

Helmsman’s quantitative analysis of complexity characteristics established an objective method for assessing complexity. Just like the Richter scale measures earthquake intensity, project managers can now measure project complexity using a research driven diagnostic tool or methodology.



 Step 2 – Reduce unnecessary complexity.

Review the project’s intended outcome and existing approach to delivery. Complexity is often built into a project early in its development – in the concept or definition phase. At this stage, decisions are often made that influence key drivers of complexity:

  • contextual
  • social influences
  • technical factors
  • ambiguity
  • project management approaches

By reviewing each driver of complexity, changes may be made that result in reduced complexity.

However, you can’t always conquer project complexity by concentrating on its drivers. The best you can do, when dealing with complexity alone, is reduce it, where possible. Pay particular focus to ‘Ambiguity’; the complexity driver most likely to cause project failure. Helmsman research shows poor performing projects have ‘Ambiguity’ scores 25-50% higher than well performing projects.

Of course, at some stage, complexity can no longer be reduced without stripping benefits. Now understanding the right controls and competencies needed on a project can increase its chance of success.


Step 3a – Apply the right controls at the right levels

There are a broad range of controls available to project managers and sponsors. These include governance, delivery management and resource, risk & contract management.

It is important to understand that different sets of controls are better suited to managing different types of complexity. Understanding what controls will work best, and the appropriate control maturity required, will increase project success rates.

Under- and over-investment in project controls can impact project success.

Under-investing in controls (where these should be applied) adds to project risk. However, control over-investment is operationally inefficient and may increase cost and time requirements.

Two common examples of this are:

  • Delivering a project with low project management complexity, but rigorously appling a project management methodology best suited to larger, more complex projects. This results in wasted time and effort, with the potential to increase project complexity by creating unnecessary links or reporting requirements.
  • Delivering a project with high project management complexity without the appropriate set of controls in place greatly increases the risk to project success. Often organisations attempt to address this with highly capable project teams. While effective, this can increase the ‘key person’ risk to projects, and may still not ensure success.

Project controls aren’t a ‘silver bullet’: a project can’t efficiently be controlled all the way to success.

Step 3b – Have the right competencies in right areas.

Identifying how complex your project is provides valuable insight into the competencies needed to drive success. This determines how and where to resource most effectively. For example, projects with broad and deep change management across organisations (the context & social complexity drivers) need a different set of team competencies than those required for a highly technical, low-change project.

By understanding your project’s true characteristics and learning from other projects, you can greatly increase the quality of outcome and chances of success. The Helmsman Institute has spent 9 years researching over 1,000 projects and 200 variables, which show a clear correlation between complexity drivers and the controls and competencies required to most effectively manage them. We have taken these research-driven insights and created a powerful and valuable diagnostic tool for managing complexity of benefit to any project.

Helmsman/s Project Performance Diagnostic


Complexity Conquered is Helmsman’s blog, focusing on understanding and managing significant and complex projects.


Helmsman are the experts in complex asset performance. Our leading edge research into complex project management, carried out by the Helmsman Institute, identifies precisely what makes major projects and programs succeed or fail. From this, we have developed a suite of invaluable tools and services to assist our clients achieve performance outcomes in complex projects.