Project complexity is most commonly considered by organisations on a project-by-project basis.  This is important as the drivers of complexity are often defined by the unique challenges the project sets out to overcome.

However, the Project Management Office (PMO) can play a critical role in extending their organisation’s capability to successfully handle complexity.  Common PMO goals include raising project success rates, effective portfolio planning, growing capability through access to specialist resources, providing cost savings through standardization, and improving project schedule and budget achievement.

The PMO’s view – of multiple projects from the past, those in-flight, and in the pipeline, across different business areas and project types, with qualified success rates – allows PMO’s to make five significant contributions to conquering complexity:


Knowing your organization’s Complexity Cliff

PMO’s have a wider view of the performance of an aggregate set of projects.  This enables the PMO to more easily define the Complexity Cliff of the organization than individual project managers.  Defining an organisation’s Complexity Cliff is based on structured analysis of the complexity of past and current projects, and the validated performance of each.

PMOs can also categorise projects as per complexity ranges, such as ‘business-as-usual’, ‘corporate’, and ‘one-off’. Applying this approach can simplify developing controls and capabilities to handle projects within each range, and guide the resources that may need to be applied from the business units, PMO, or potentially partners for projects substantially beyond the ‘Cliff’.





Project prioritization

Using the same methodology, the complexity of projects in the pipeline can then be assessed relative to the Complexity Cliff, with these insights informing portfolio prioritization and planning.  This allows the PMO to evaluate the complexity range of projects that their organisation is ‘fit’ to do successfully. If future projects fall beyond their Complexity Cliff then the organisation should consider investing in their organisational controls to match ‘normal’ levels of project complexity. For ‘one off’ projects with a higher complexity, it can then look to partners with greater experience or proven capability to deal with higher levels of complexity.


Proactively address common complexity drivers

An aggregated view of the complexity of past projects enables a portfolio view of the drivers of complexity can be established.  This system-wide view of the common drivers of complexity within the organization’s projects enables the PMO to improve visibility of these challenges and guide Project Sponsors & Project Managers to resolve them at early stages of the project lifecycle.


Enhance organizational support

A further advantage of improved visibility of the common complexity challenges across project pipeline is the ability of the PMO shape plans, advice, training and expertise to enhance the support available to the organization.  Considering these at a PMO level can result in reduction in bespoke resourcing and problem resolution within projects, with subsequent risk, effort and cost benefits.


Ensure appropriate controls

Lastly, many PMO’s play a role in establishing consistent and effective project systems, particularly around the project controls. The application of a controls assessment based on complexity can streamline project performance monitoring.  It also improves clarity to the project team in identifying and establishing a controls approach, appropriate investment in right controls, and minimising wasted effort and cost from unsuitable project controls.

Overall, PMO’s can play a critical role in conquering complexity for an organisation. A conscious approach to complexity assessment and controls requirements can deliver better portfolio prioritization, early stage insights of complexity challenges, enhanced organizational support to address them, and more aligned controls. Each of these directly supports improving project success rates in terms of outcome, timing and budget achievement.


If you’d like to know more, check out the complexity assessment in Helmsman’s Project Performance Diagnostic or get in touch with our Project Performance team.



Helmsman’s Project Consulting practice has deep research-backed 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.