What’s a Complexity Cliff?

Helmsman’s 9-year research into the impact of complexity on project outcomes has uncovered a specific and consistent scenario where the likelihood of project success plummets – The Complexity Cliff.

This finding came from analysis that established an objective and accurate measure for assessing complexity – the Helmsman Complexity Scale. The Complexity Scale is used similar to how the Richter Scale is applied for building projects.

In construction projects, by understanding what intensity of earthquake a building needs to withstand (based on the Richter Scale), its design and construction can be configured accordingly. Because higher or lower intensity quakes influence actual building requirements, avoiding over-engineering (which creates waste) or under-engineering (which brings higher risks for structural failure) is important.

We found we could use our methodology to effectively determine where project complexity becomes a barrier to successful delivery. Because, like quake-proofing, over-investment in project capability and controls creates waste, while under-investment brings higher risks of failure.

Helmsman’s research then identified that there is a complexity tipping point where an organisation’s project success rate declines dramatically.

This is what we call the Complexity Cliff.


Once complexity reaches a tipping point, project performance drops off rapidly


A project goes over the Complexity Cliff when it is more complex than the organisation’s capability to tackle complexity.

At this point, a company’s risk and control systems begin to fail, and project performance falls off the ‘Cliff’.

It is important to note that the capability to successfully deliver complex projects varies between organisations; each has its own complexity threshold, where a project’s ability to achieve its desired benefits rapidly drops off. This threshold will be unique to the organisation, having evolved over time based on:

  • The types of projects the organisation has previously undertaken
  • Its established project approaches and controls frameworks
  • The project expertise it retains or has access to.


How does the Complexity Cliff impact a project?

It’s not always obvious when a project has gone ‘over the cliff’. Failure goes beyond the lost or deferred benefits; the rectification costs, brand damage, impact on business performance, customers and staff can be significant.

Historically, it was often infered that scale and complexity were reasonably correlated, e.g. larger projects were more likely to have higher levels of complexity. But with the growth of technical, contextual and social complexities (like business systems integration, interactive communications and continuous stakeholder engagement) increased complexity is now a factor in most projects, regardless of their scale.

The Complexity Cliff can ‘sneak up on you’

Successful organisations understand that high complexity projects (such as a ‘7’ or more on the Helmsman Complexity Scale) or low complexity projects (such as a ‘3’ on the Helmsman Complexity Scale) require fundamentally different capabilities and controls to deliver quality outcomes, and are better prepared to achieve them.

This means that lower cost projects can present unexpectedly high levels of complexity – a fact not always evident until project outcomes come under threat.


Enhancing an organisation’s ability to deal with complexity – and handle its Complexity Cliff

By using the Helmsman Complexity Scale, organisations can now determine a project’s level of complexity, and adjust the capability and controls required to deliver the best outcome.

There are simple steps organisations can take to reduce these risks, and improve project performance.

Know where your Complexity Cliff lies, and your project complexity relative to it.

  1. Establish a uniform method of measuring the complexity of each project within your organisation.
  2. Understand what the normal range of complexity is for your projects. Be mindful of how ‘once-in-a-generation’ projects can skew this, due to the significant investment in under-used capabilities, approaches and controls. Knowing the ‘normal’ range allows for sensible investment decisions in these scaling critical capabilities.
  3. Review past project successes and failures from a complexity perspective to define where your Complexity Cliff lies. This allows project sponsors and managers to assess what is within their capabilities, and what is beyond.
  4. Identify what pushed previous projects over the Complexity Cliff. By understanding these, you can then identify what ‘missing’ competencies or controls may have been needed to handle the project.
  5. Establish project capability to deal with common complexity levels for your organisation.
  6. Establish a mechanism to address projects that go beyond your ‘Cliff’.

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.  Helmsman’s Project Consulting practice has deep experience in understanding both the complexity of specific projects and identifying the Complexity Cliff in organisations; and developing approaches to ensure capabilities and controls appropriate to your needs are developed and maintained.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.