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Do You Manage Simple, Complicated or Complex Projects?

30 Jun 2020
Do You Manage Simple, Complicated or Complex Projects?

A key differentiator for assessing an individual’s competence in project management is the complexity of the project. However, defining complexity can be tricky. Therefore, one might consider that simple is easier to solve than complicated, which is easier than complex.

IPMA® provides a scoring grid dealing with 3 major categories that help to define the complexity of projects. Each category is divided into several indicators, of which there are 10 in total, and each one is scored on a scale of 1 – 4. 

Table 1 — Complexity Assessment
Table 1 — Complexity Assessment

Table 2 — Scoring Key
Table 2 — Scoring Key

Table 3 — Interpreting the Results
Table 3 — Interpreting the Results

When assessing candidates, assessors are required to ensure that the candidates' award to themselves is accurate and reflects our understanding of complexity. There is a great and understandable tendency for someone inexperienced to think a project is complex when it is merely complicated. Often this is down to a lack of appreciation and understanding as to what constitutes complexity.

For example, if one asks a couple to get married to describe their wedding in terms of a complex or simple project, they will invariably declare it complex. Ask a wedding planner with some years of experience, and they might rate the same wedding as complicated or even simple.

So when assessing a project for the complexity, we need to look at the complicated side of things first. Was the project going to fix a problem? Were the steps then planned out and executed for this fix? Did a few wrinkles appear on the way to the fix? This isn't very easy, but it is not complex.

If, however, the Project Manager looked at the issues and had more questions than answers; that there was no obvious fix insight; and all they could do was to manage as best they could to get to a place where the project was saving the worst of the effects, then that is complex.

Cranfield University in the UK argues that organisations must develop outside of the process. They believe that to reach complex management maturity, organisations must develop structural and emergent responses and a third dimension (as they call it) of socio-political management. People!

Companies cannot mature in project management and do projects successfully until they have professionals such as those at IPMA Level B and A in their teams. Overall, 68% of projects fail — mainly due to the lack of knowledge of the process in simple projects and lack of requisite skills in complex projects.

If you wish to gain this knowledge, the Institute has a number of courses, such as the Project Leadership & Management Diploma, a course that gets you an IPMA-B/A® certification.


  1. Stephen Cranfield (Cranfield University) asks if you are getting on a plane, with 180 other people flying for 2 hours with a tank of explosive fuel, at 10,000m at 600km per hour, over water and only with a whistle to attract attention if you end up in the ocean, would you expect the pilot to be formally trained? Yes, you would; so the question then is why do organisations put untrained people in charge of a project that can damage their business, their customers, their staff, their finances, their reputation?                                                                                                                                                 
  2. Sticking with the plane analogy. Flying a plane is complicated. It has a million checklists, quality checks, compliance tests and simulations. But every day, they fly. However, if a double bird strike with multiple birds kills both engines and the pilot has to land on the Hudson River in NY (see the film Sully), flying becomes complex.                                                                                                                                                   
  3. Don't manage a project based on your self-belief; manage it based on formal training with a body such as the Institute.

John Atkinson, MBA, IPMA-B®, is a lecturer, consultant, business owner and employer who brings project management to life every day. He is an International Validator for IPMA® and an assessor in Ireland for the Irish Institute of Project Management. He believes that his involvement with IPMA in the development of ICB4 (Individual Competence Baseline, Version 4) will help to change the future of project managers, their discipline, professionalism and outcomes.