Section 1


Projects can be classified according to their certainty in both scope (WHAT) and delivery methodology (HOW):

Complex projects are open, emergent and adaptive systems that are characterised by recursiveness and non-linear feedback loops. Their sensitivity to small differences in initial conditions significantly inhibits detailed long-term planning for these projects, and their implementation is a dynamic process.

Complex projects:

  • are usually adaptive systems of systems;
  • have high uncertainty in scope definition;
  • are distributed;
  • have ongoing environmental and internal turbulence;
  • are implemented through wave planning; and
  • are unable to be decomposed to elements with clearly defined boundaries.Project management is a continuum: at one node is traditional project management, with its philosophy, organisational architecture, methodology, tool set and contracts all firmly based upon the expectation of relatively stable conditions and certainty; at the other node is complex project management, with its philosophy, organisational architecture, methodology, tool set and contracts all firmly based upon uncertainty and complexity.The intersection between traditional and complex project management is a class point on this continuum called executive project management, where the project manager is highly competent in traditional project management, has an awareness of the complex project management paradigm, and has developed competences in a range of the complex project management competencies.Applying traditional project management approaches to complex projects is counterproductive. The focus of traditional project management on detailed long-term planning, rigid structures, precise work breakdown structure definition and elaborate control rules will drive complex projects towards failure.Although the specific path followed by the behaviour of complex systems is chaotic, there are underlying patterns. The ability (competence) to understand and proactively deal with these patterns is what distinguishes complex, executive and traditional project managers.


Project management as a profession is presently debating the suitability of existing vocationally-based project management bodies of knowledge, methodologies and tools, and their relevance to complex projects. Other management disciplines, such as Systems Thinking, have faced similar challenges and provide insights that are useful for project management. Systems Thinking parallels project management in many ways, being largely project-based, and having encompassed complexity.

Systems Thinking originated and developed during the early 1960s, and its dominant methodologies were built upon the scientific method. In a traditional positivist paradigm each system is broken down into its components, each component is analysed in detail, and facts are established – there usually being only one acceptable fact for each issue. Throughout its development as a discipline, Systems Thinking has faced similar problems of project complexity to those currently being faced by project management. During this period, Systems Thinking has developed a typology which enables practitioners to select the appropriate philosophy, methodology, and tool set for a particular project.

The Systems Thinking typologies represent a continuum of views and frameworks based on specific metaphors that are used as useful constructs to provide insights into different types of projects: at one end are traditional positivist approaches, and at the other are anti-positivist approaches. The anti-positivist approach to Systems Thinking shall be referred to as complex Systems Thinking. A key aspect of this contingency approach is that, depending upon a project’s level of complexity, different Systems Thinking methodologies should be used.

By viewing a problem using multiple metaphors and dialectics, a better and more practical understanding is obtained. Traditional positivist Systems Thinking (including Systems Engineering) focuses upon the rationality of certainty and prediction driven empirical observation, whilst complex Systems Thinking systems approaches use multiple perspectives and dialectics to make sense of projects. Through complex Systems Thinking, an issue and/or system is looked at from multiple perspectives (views) using metaphors and dialectics. Dialectics provide nodal points through which to analyse equally strong and opposing positions within a single area. Whilst using a single node of analysis within an area significantly increases depth in understanding, using multiple dialectic foci across multiple areas provide both breadth and depth in understanding.

As with Systems Thinking, project management must be capable of dealing holistically with the project – that is, approaching the project in context, rather than in isolation from its environment. Most projects operate within larger systems, and in fact represent systems themselves being comprised of multiple smaller but interconnected systems.

This approach is being reflected internationally, with clients’ expectations from projects now moving away from inputs and outputs, towards a focus upon project outcomes, results and benefits realisation. These changes, along with increasing environmental uncertainty, are driving project management to not only view the project as a system with internal subsystems, but also just as importantly to view the project itself as part of a much larger system. Achieving this holistic view requires project management to use a new way of thinking. Traditional positivist project management methodologies and tools logically break down projects, organisations and issues into their constituent parts, analyse those parts, and then re-assemble them. This logical approach is significantly limited by its failure to address the interaction, interdependence of and synergy between constituent parts. The interaction and synergy between the elements within a system, and the interaction of that system with its environment, are the critical issues – not how the parts of that system operate in isolation. As with Systems Thinking, the complexity and uncertainty of many projects necessitates the use of anti-positivist project management methodologies and tools that use multiple perspectives and metaphors.

A systems view of projects provides a powerful tool for establishing a philosophical understanding of projects. The subsystems and processes comprising a system can only be understood in terms of their relationship with: each other; the system as a whole; and the system as part of a larger system. Understanding a system therefore requires an understanding of those relationships.


There are four contenders operating in the project management space – general management (GM), traditional project management (TPM), systems thinking (ST) including systems engineering (SE), and complex project management (CPM).


In many ways general management and traditional project management have developed concurrently, and they possess similar approaches to certainty. General management is based upon the machine metaphor, and focuses on ongoing organisations. Organisational architecture, business process, long range planning, and even new tools such as six-sigma are based upon project stability and certainty. Over the past decade, the failure of strategic planning and the increased rate of environmental change have brought these assumptions of certainty under increasing pressure. In response, whilst still maintaining its philosophical foundations in certainty, general management has moved to stress the importance of leadership, emotional intelligence, empowerment, communication, alignment, and teams in providing flexibility and responsiveness. Traditional project management has followed general management, and has incorporated similar criteria into traditional project management competency standards. The concurrent development of general management and traditional project management in response to these changes has established a significant overlap between traditional project management and general management. However, it is equally clear that general management has not embraced either systems engineering or systems thinking.


Traditional project management is based upon relative project certainty – certainty in both the project scope, and in respect to the project context (environment). Traditional project management was initially based upon three outcomes – time, cost and quality – with trade-offs being made between them. Traditional project management’s toolset has since expanded to now include nine tools with matching sets of competency standards – integration, scope, time, cost, quality, risk, human resources, communication and procurement. Continuing high incidents of project failure have led to an international movement to expand traditional project management competencies, by including general management. These changes are designed to enable traditional project management to:

  • overcome the increasing failure rate of traditional project management in projects with scope certainty that are implemented in uncertain environments; and
  • overcome the adversarial nature of the traditional project management paradigm

Traditional project management’s new competency areas include a range of business and soft competencies, and have blurred the boundaries between traditional project management and general management. Similar to general management, changes to traditional project management have also failed to adopt systems engineering and systems thinking.


As with general management, systems thinking was initially focused upon project certainty and built on the machine metaphor as a way to understand how projects operate. However, unlike project management and general management, systems thinking has developed a contingency approach that includes a continuum of approaches: at one node is systems engineering, which is based upon certainty and alignment in the environment; and at the other node are approaches based upon recognition of the uncertainty, and the nature of power dynamic environments. Unlike general management’s strategic and long range planning, systems thinking’s continuum of approaches to gain understanding of systems has proven to deliver effective planning tools in both closed and open systems.

Systems thinking remains focused on developing systems engineering tool sets. It has accepted the philosophical differences required to operate at the two nodal points on its tools continuum – a positivist philosophy at the certainty / alignment node; and an anti-positivist philosophy at the uncertain / coercive node. Systems thinking offers a contingency based interpretive and critical framework for understanding the dynamics of large scale projects.


Unlike project management, general management and systems thinking, which have evolved through attempts at improving performance, complex project management was specifically developed to be philosophically based upon uncertainty and emergent environments. Although complex project management uses project management as an entry gateway, its competency framework, underpinning knowledge and tools are built upon a broad range of other disciplines which deal with various aspects of complexity. Complex project management has nine views which define behaviours of complex project managers in the workplace, each of which operates as a continuum with a TPM/GM node and a complex project management node. The key differences between traditional project management and complex project management are their underlying assumptions and philosophies.






Traditional Projects


Complicated Projects

Unclear, Change & Chaos

Complex Projects




Political and Emergent

Philosophical Base (Paradigm)


Certainty & Pluralism

Pluralism, Uncertainty, Change & Chaos

Training / Education




The philosophical differences between TPM/GM, ExecPM and complex project management are highlighted by the differing approaches they use to integrate their respective functions and views. Both TPM/GM and ExecPM use a systems engineering decomposition process to develop their base elements, and then a progressive rebuild process to integrate those base elements. These processes assume that integration occurs primarily during the early phases of the project lifecycle, with the ExecPM project manager acting as a boundary manager to protect the project’s core from external change.

By way of contrast, in complex project management, such decomposition alone cannot be used as the overall scope cannot be fully defined: even in circumstances where the scope can be generally defined, any such decomposition will be invalidated by ongoing change. The systems engineering decomposition process ‘freezes’ the project scope and stops emergence. This ‘freezing’ is particularly an issue in System of Systems projects, and may be addressed by either a modular architecture that significantly reduces the impact of decomposition upon emergence, or developing a vertically and horizontally integrated project solution. Instead of decomposition into base elements and a rebuild using staged integration, complex project management uses a systems thinking approach with multiple views to provide a holistic understanding of the project.

As technology and the environment change quickly, technologies of systems engineering are not sufficient, and must be augmented and/or replaced. This is because traditional project management and systems engineering focuses on boundable problems for which optimal solutions can be found. In complex project management we are dealing with unboundable problems.

Complex project management uses traditional project management to deliver short term projects where there is scope certainty (boundable problems); wave planning to deliver projects with uncertain scope (unboundable problems); and double loop learning to periodically reframe the project.


The following Project Categorisation Framework (PCAT) provides one gateway point method at project inception to: categorise projects by their systems type; determine the appropriate project strategy and contract; and select appropriately competent project managers.

PCAT categorises projects into five types:

  • Traditional Projects:
  • Complicated Projects:
  • Complex Projects:

PCAT types 5 and 4 PCAT type 3
PCAT types 2 and 1

PCAT provides a structured methodology to select appropriately competent project managers:


Project Description

IPMA Level

Project Management Competency

CPM Level


Highly complex project

Complex Project Management (CPM)

Level 1


Complex project

Complex Project Management (CPM)

Level 2


Traditional project within a highly political environment

Level A

Executive Project Management (ExecPM)


Traditional project

Level B

Traditional Project Management (TPM)


Minor works

Levels C

Minor works project management

Project Team Member

Level D

PCAT uses the following assessment criteria to categorise projects:

Assessment Criteria


Level of Emergence

The project is a journey driven by a vision. There is high uncertainty in scope definition. Systems function as a whole, so they have properties above and beyond the properties of the parts that comprise them. These are known as emergent properties, and they emerge from the system whilst in operation. You cannot predict the behaviour of an emergent system from studying its individual parts. The level of emergence is a measure of the:

  •   scale of strategic change
  •   depth of cultural change
  •   level of technical emergence in the project.


Internal System Complexity

Project Team Complexity – is a measure of the complexity of the internal architecture of the project team, and the maturity of the project team in this type of project.

Technical Difficulty – is a measure of the novelty of the project, and inherent complexities that arise from technical undertakings such as conflicting user requirements, integration with supra system, project architecture, design and development, assembly, technical emergence, incremental/modular builds,

integration, and test and acceptance

Commercial – the level of usage of relational performance based, phased, and layered incentive driven contracting arrangements, and the complexity of the commercial arrangements being managed, including the number and level

of interdependent commercial arrangements.


External System Complexity

Stakeholder Complexity –

Schedule Complexity –

Life Cycle –

is a measure of the complexity of the project’s stakeholder relationships. It includes the number of stakeholders, the level of alignment versus pluralism, cultural diversity, and geographic dispersal

is a measure of the inherent complexity arising from schedule pressures on the project. The project is delivered using Wave Planning, and is subject to competing and conflicting priorities

is a measure of uncertainty arising from the maturity of the project delivery organization, and the environmental maturity within which the project will be operated, supported and sustained.


Project Cost

Includes requirements development (empirically 6-10% of acquisition cost) and through life operating, maintenance and support costs, asset management and periodic upgrading (empirically 3- 4 times acquisition cost).

Methodology for PCAT Criteria Assessment

Emergence is a measure of the scale of emergence in the overall project /program. Emergence is measured against three criteria:

  • scale of strategic change
  • depth of cultural change, and
  • level of technical emergence.

First, each of the three criteria of emergence is classified as having either:

  • very high emergence        score 4
  • high emergence                score 3
  • moderate emergence      score 2
  • low emergence                 score 0

and the three criteria scores are added to give a total score for emergence

Using this total score, the overall emergence of the project/program is then classified using the following grades:

  • High emergence              score between 6 and 12
  • Moderate emergence     score between 4 and 6
  • Low emergence               score between 0 and 4

Internal system complexity is a measure of internal system complexity in the overall project /program. Internal system complexity is measured against three criteria:

  • project team complexity
  • technical difficulty, and
  • commercial complexity.First, each of the three criteria of internal system complexity is classified as having either:
  • very high internal system complexity       score 4
  • high internal system complexity               score 3
  • moderate internal system complexity      score 2
  • low internal system complexity                 score 0

and the three criteria scores are added to give a total score for internal system complexity.

Using this total score, the overall internal system complexity of the project / program is then classified using the following grades:

  • High internal system complexity              score between 6 and 12
  • Moderate internal system complexity     score between 4 and 6
  • Low internal system complexity               score between 0 and 4

External system complexity is a measure of external system complexity in the overall project /program. External system complexity is measured against three criteria:

  • stakeholder complexity;
  • schedule complexity; and
  • life cycle complexity.First, each of the three criteria of external system complexity is classified as having either:
  • very high external system complexity        score 4
  • high external system complexity                 score 3
  • moderate external system complexity        score 2
  • low external system complexity                   score 0

and the three criteria scores are added to give a total score for external system complexity

Using this total score, the overall external system complexity of the project / program is then classified using the following grades:

  • High external system complexity                  score between 6 and 12
  • Moderate external system complexity         score between 4 and 6
  • Low external system complexity                   score between 0 and 4

Projects are categorised by inserting grades for each of the three criteria into the following table:



Internal system Complexity

External system Complexity

Cost (Euros)


If at least two criteria are graded as high

> 2.0 b


If at least two criteria are graded as high

> 1.0 but < 2.0 b


At least two criteria grades are graded as moderate or higher

Programs > 100m, Projects > 500m


No more than one criteria is graded as moderate or higher

> 20m, but < 500m


All criteria are graded as low

< 20m



For some, recognition as a complex project manager represents the pinnacle of the project manager career pathway. In moving along the continuum from traditional project management to complex project management, there is a progressive building of competencies – that is, complex project management includes all the traditional project management competencies (including Program and Portfolio Management). The cusp / transition area between the two philosophies (ExecPM) highlights the differences between traditional project management and complex project management:

This document provides a certification model for Executive Project Managers or Complex Project Managers should organisations choose to include CPM in their PM certification framework.

The model requires a candidate to satisfy the following requirements:

  • Proven competence in TPM, ST, and GM: the initial gateway for a complex project manager is proven competence in TPM, ST, and GM, since most complex projects include subprojects which are PCAT 3, 4, or 5
  • Possessing the Special Attributes (at the appropriate level), and an ability to work in both certainty and complexity based paradigms
  • Proven underpinning knowledge for each of the nine Views – representing distinct actions in the workplace (at the appropriate level)
  • Proven competence in each of those nine Views (at the appropriate level).

These CPM competency standards are fundamentally different to TPM competency standards – whilst TPM competency standards are structured for operational management and technical training, these standards are structured for executive / strategic management and tertiary education.

In particular, these CPM competency standards:

  • are based upon a complexity / uncertainty and emergence-based paradigm
  • use multiple views and dialectics to define behaviours that together provide insight and understanding
  • require a substantial level of underpinning knowledge
  • rely on an understanding of the business mindset needed to achieve project outcomes
  • define required special attributes.

Complex Project Management Paradigm (Mindset)

The project management mindset drives:

  • the design of the strategic approach to deliver the project
  • the selection of the contracting model
  • the criteria and process to select the project manager, project team, and the contractor
  • the tool set to be used in planning and delivering the project.

The decisions made for these issues significantly varies, dependent upon whether the TPM or CPM mindset is applied. TPM’s certainty-based philosophy (mindset) assumes relative certainty and stability as the normative condition. In contrast, the CPM mindset assumes uncertainty, change and emergence as the normative condition. A CPM mindset enables a complex project manager to comfortably understand and proactively deal with complex projects. Without a complex project paradigm, a traditional project manager will inevitably look to decomposition as their base assumption. There are five key influences which shape the mindset of a complex project manager:

  • Uncertainty
  • Inherent Complexity
  • Chaos
  • Emergence
  • Double Loop Learning.

Multiple views and dialectics define behaviours

These CPM competency standards define the behaviours in the workplace for executive project managers and complex project managers, according to nine distinct Views: Strategy; Business Planning; Change; Innovation; Organisational Architecture; Systems; Leadership; Culture; and Governance. Seen through the CPM paradigm, the Views provide insights into a project from nine perspectives. Although Systems (including Systems Thinking) and Change (including Journey Management) represent the core Views, it is only through viewing a project through each of the nine Views, that a holistic understanding of the project is achieved.

Underpinning Knowledge

Unlike TPM where underpinning knowledge is a minor factor in competency assessment, underpinning knowledge plays a significant role in the competency assessment of Complex (and Executive) project managers. Complex (and Executive) project managers require a deep and broad underpinning knowledge:

  • Complex (and Executive) project managers must be competent across a broad range of areas, and correspondingly require a significant breadth of knowledge. The CPM competency standards draws its theoretical base from a broad range of literatures, and the depth of underpinning knowledge it requires is moderated through four levels.
  • Complex (and Executive) projects are generally ‘one-of-one’ and do not repeat themselves, with past projects at best providing insight only. Complex (and Executive) project managers require significant depth of knowledge in key areas to support the project’s architecture design.

Each View defines the scope and depth of the Underpinning Knowledge required for that View. Underpinning Knowledge is drawn from a broad range of disciplines, and is an essential aspect of the CPM standards. The Underpinning Knowledge provides Complex Project Managers with the ability to develop first principle solutions, to question orthodoxy and the normative, and to integrate the Views.



Whilst the paradigm defines the mindset, and the views define the behaviours in the workplace, the special attributes define the personal characteristics that are essential for complex project managers. The special attributes deliver two critical abilities for complex project managers:

  • they enable complex project managers to provide leadership and a pathway forward, when continuously confronted with multiple and opposing paradigms, views and dialectics
  • they enable individuals to not only survive, but flourish in what many would perceive as a high pressure and personally demanding environment.

There are five elements in the special attributes:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Action and outcome oriented
  3. Creates and leads innovative teams
  4. Focused and courageous
  5. Ability to influence.

Each element represents a different focus (view) within the special attributes, and provides a different perspective. Holism is only achieved by looking at all the elements.


The categories of young and old are not tied to specific ages, but rather to psychological, biological, and social qualities. As individuals progress through their lifecycle, they reach gateway points at which they make decisions that significantly shape their future. These gateway points represent transition points, in which the individual’s life vision is modified and placed into a new context.

Wisdom is developed by passing through these gateway points throughout the lifecycle, during which the individual’s psyche evolves from an undifferentiated image, into an increasingly complex internal figure that maintains a dialectic of young and old. Whilst the internal young psyche maintains significant energy and capacity for further development, the internal old psyche has already reached its potential. The location of these gateway points within the lifecycle are commonly accepted amongst ancient scholars, including the Talmud, Confucius, and Solon.

A key characteristic of complex project managers is that they do not believe they have yet reached their full potential. Rather, they continually explore and re-define the dialectic between young and old so as to stretch their personal potential.

Action and Outcome Oriented

The drive to take action and the desire to deliver outcomes are essential for complex project managers. No matter what obstacles or resistance they inevitably encounter, complex project managers remain focused on delivering the project outcomes.

Creates and Leads Innovative Teams

Complex project managers lead, inspire, and provide the energy to teams, enabling them to deliver more, both as individuals and through synergy than they have ever previously achieved. They utilise their broad range of experience to drive creativity, by providing the building blocks required to seed ideas into teams.

Focused and Courageous

Complex project managers lead from the front, create a safe environment for their team, and have the courage to push boundaries and make hard decisions.

Ability to Influence

A significant ability to influence others is essential for complex project managers – in many instances, it is only through this special attribute that project support is achieved.