Interactions between Project Planning and Complexity/Uncertainty

Date: 15/02/2019

Prepared by: Majed Abdeen

My usual approach when starting any project is to assess and analyse the uncertainty and complexity using the appropriate Tools & Techniques to do so. I faced challenges including meeting the appropriate stakeholders and getting the correct information. Many clients I have worked with, have negated the importance of assessing the uncertainty and complexity, thus they sent whomever was available, rather than the key stakeholders, which then led to project scope creep.

Impacts of uncertainty/complexity on project planning

Uncertainties are inevitable, thus Project Managers must plan appropriately, ensuring the team can manage them. Project planning may take longer/be reworked to prevent project failure from uncertainties/complexities. Plans should be simple and understandable (Giezen, 2012, p. 786). PMs must avoid underestimating complexity, planning for potential budgetary and schedule impacts (Bosch-Rekveldta, et al., 2011, p. 782), and involving others in the planning process. There may be differing views on uncertainty/complexity and potential solutions due to different skills, knowledge and experience (Bosch-Rekveldta, et al., 2011, p. 735) which the PM must harness. Stakeholder engagement must be planned, ensuring commitment (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 137).

Planning for Complexity: Key Principles

Consider Uncertainty

Uncertainty must be considered from the outset, with planning beginning early. The project-contract and Project-Charter must be consulted, constraints and complexity/uncertainty sources assessed (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 134), as the contract can significantly affect these (Bosch-Rekveldta, et al., 2011, p. 731).

Consider Support/Agreement

Project-Stakeholder attitudes/support are key to success but also sources of conflict/uncertainty (Oehmen, et al., 2015, p. 6). Communication is critical; stakeholder engagement, (PMI, 2014, p. 60), responses for resistant stakeholders, and alignment of stakeholder/project goals must be planned (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 136).

Assess Knowledge and Capability

The team's skills/experience contribute to or eliminate uncertainty/complexity thus the PM must consider/consult the team about project delivery (PMI, 2013, p. 10). The team's abilities/knowledge/experience (PMI, 2014, p. 60) should be evaluated. Consulting and applying lessons learned from previous projects is also essential (PMI, 2014, p. 63).

Tailoring Approach

The development approach must also be chosen carefully to suit the project and the uncertainty/complexity encountered. The life cycle must be appropriate for dealing with uncertainty/complexity and must be tailored to suit (PMI, 2017), with sufficient flexibility and allowances to deal with the risks (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 204-205).

Dynamic Planning

The PM must employ critical thinking throughout the project, not only the planning process (PMI, 2014, p. 60). By ensuring that planning remains flexible, uncertainty/complexity can be planned for appropriately. The plan must also ensure its own integrity, controlling the project in the face of uncertainty/complexity, preventing scope creep (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 204-205).

Sources of Complexity/Uncertainty

We can categorise sources of complexity/uncertainty into three: Human Behaviour, System Behaviour, and Ambiguity (PMI, 2014).

Human Behaviour

I have experienced customers expecting "gold plating" beyond the contract and scope, in addition to requesting merging of reports from different systems - not technically possible within scope. Analysis suggests this is due to stakeholders having unreasonable/unachievable expectations, and significantly/willfully misunderstanding goals and decision processes (PMI, 2014, p. 38). This, with scope creep, can occur due to uncertainty/complexity (Bosch-Rekveldta, et al., 2011, p. 731) and requirements are not defined due to conflicting stakeholder information (PMI, 2014, p. 38). Ultimately the source for this is Human Behaviour.

System Behaviour

In one project, bureaucracy was a significant issue; it was very difficult to obtain access for the team but the complex procedures must be followed. Additionally, new procedures were frequently created. Analysing the complexity/uncertainty here, they were due to the requirement to follow procedures due to consequences for not doing so (Giezen, 2012, p. 787), compounded by changing key stakeholders (Giezen, 2012, p. 786). The source for this was System Behaviour.


On a GIS project, I experienced problems with the team being insufficiently qualified, leading to incorrect technical decisions due to lack of training. Analysing this, the lack of qualified personnel were due to the advanced technology involved, the high level of external change, and the lack of support from the company. Ambiguity was the source of this uncertainty/complexity (PMI, 2014, pp. 40, 45).


Bosch-Rekveldta, M. et al., 2011. Grasping project complexity in large engineering projects: The TOE (Technical, Organizational and Environmental) framework. International Journal of Project Management, 29(1), p. 728–739.

Giezen, M., 2012. Keeping it simple? A case study into the advantages and disadvantages of reducing complexity in mega project planning. International Journal of Project Management, 30(1), p. 781–790.

Meredith, J. R., Samuel J. Mantel, J. & Shafer, S. M., 2015. Project Management: A Managerial Approach. 9th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Oehmen, J., Thuesen, C., Parraguez Ruiz, P. & Geraldi, J., 2015. Complexity Management for Projects, Programmes, and Portfolios: An Engineering Systems Perspective. PMI White Paper: Project Management Institute, inc.

PMI, 2013. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity, Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI, 2014. Navigating Complexity: A PRACTICE GUIDE. Newtown Square(Pennsylvania): Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI, 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.