Complexity: Four Principles for Program Managers

I started writing this article to report and elaborate on eleven useful practices as identified in a 2014 Project Management Institute (PMI) publication titled Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide. I thought it would be a straightforward project, but it morphed into an article and outlook that I believe will be much more valuable for readers.

As a “practice guide,” the publication was a collaborative project, written and reviewed by dozens of people with expertise in program and project management. You can see those eleven practices are on the nearby graphic (which is an image clipped from the document’s table of contents).


Complexity TOCAs I began to elaborate on each of the eleven practices and their applicability to strategic initiatives, I had a growing sense of discomfort. It started with the document’s weak definition of complexity (page 1), “complexity may be viewed as challenging characteristics of programs and projects that organizations and practitioners encounter in today’s fast-paced, competitive, and dynamic environment.” In other words, the authors regard see complexity as a “challenging characteristic.” That’s pretty inclusive, as something as mundane as a broken photocopy machine, a corporate policy, or an aggressive schedule could be challenging.Navigating Complexity

For purposes of this article, I’ll point you to Neil Johnson’s definition of complexity (from Wikipedia) as

“the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects.”

The key characteristic of complexity is that it involves emergence: opportunities as well as threats emerge. The specifics of that emergence can’t be predicted in advance. (This article is a case in point: it started out as a straightforward listing and elaboration but transformed into a more sophisticated perspective about the presence of complexity in programs.)

What follows is four principles that emerged for me as I analyzed and synthesized the key elements of PMI’s eleven practices.

Principle 1 – Recognize the role of emergence

In the natural world, complex systems are characterized by emergence. Examples are weather events, epidemics, and even terrorist cells.  The time and place of the specific event are not predictable. In strategic initiatives, emergence can be in many forms: unexpected mergers, unexpected moves by competitors, and so forth.

One of the most useful habits is to encourage everyone on your team to pay attention to small signals, with the idea that they grow to be significant threats or opportunities. Establish a mindset in the program’s culture (especially the communications and decision processes) to expect the unexpected.

This brings us to one of the most important (and subtle shifts) from the traditional PMI mindset towards quality. I wrote earlier that I had a sense of discomfort as I read the document. Besides the definition, it was caused the emphasis on command and control. People preach the commonsense value of preventing defects from occurring in the first place. That certainly makes sense for well-understood and ordered systems. However, the emphasis on prevention tends to begat controls on top of controls, which unintentionally creates yet another layer of potentially-complex behaviors.

In complex systems, consider moving away from emphasizing prevention to emphasizing resilience. The idea of resilience is that some sort of failure is inevitable. It’s smarter to create a culture that encourages early detection of an event, and then quickly respond and remediation. Finally, figure out how to transform the threat to an opportunity.

We use the term integration all of the time in program and project management. I’d like to suggest that integration  –  when in domains characterized as complex – really means the approach that the team uses to monitor the entire system and quickly react to emergence.

Principle 2 – Avoid oversimplification

The practice of avoiding oversimplification is very similar to the first practice of recognizing emergence.

All people like simplicity, but often over-simplification leads to poor decisions. When we are in areas of complexity we recognize that rules of thumb are two-edged: when we use simple rules, we activate our intuition. However, a simple rule can also lead us to missing important nuances. They challenge the assumptions, and accept change as a constant.

Note this quote (attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.),

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”

Strategic thinkers look for that simplicity on the far side of complexity. They do this by developing a nuanced understanding of the organization, especially the numerous interfaces with the external environment. You want to err on the complexity because small errors cascade and magnify into greater problems.

This means that managers should be aware of their own assumptions and challenge them. They should see data from the organization.

Principle 3 – Recognize and manage your strategic assumptions

Optimistic executives can often set the program up for failure by not understanding the true nature of the situation. A strategic assumption is an assumption that if invalid, causes cancellation of a key program element or a redirection in it. You can find more on recognizing and managing strategic assumptions at this link.

Principle 4 – Favor expertise over experience in staffing and communication

Experience and expertise are not the same thing. A person may have worked in an area for a long time and accrued much experience. However, an expert is more adept at recognizing the causes of symptoms. Here we can learn something from the academics that have studied experts and novices in fields like chess, counseling, and medicine. They tell us that experts are more thoughtful in approaching the problem. They search for important features and formulate a mental representation of the issue. That mental model contains abstract rules and principles.

On the other hand, novices tend to search for “methodologies” and best practices.  I find it is often because they are impatient to see some results, so they plunge into complex situations without the right mental stance.

You’ll get much better results if you orient your staffing and communications around this question,

“Who has the best ability to diagnose and understand the nuances of this specific situation?”

I’d welcome your comments, especially if you are familiar with Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide. Do you agree with the four principles and do you agree they reflect the eleven practices?




About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
This entry was posted in Ambiguity and Strong-Minded Thinking, Competencies of Strategic Initiative Leaders, Program & Portfolio Management, Useful Practices & Management Tools. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Complexity: Four Principles for Program Managers

  1. DoubleDuce says:

    Great post. Motivated me to download the Navigating Complexity and the companion. Thanks for the post

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s