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Managing positive and negative complexity. PhD public defence presentation - long version

Stefan Morcov
Prof. Liliane Pintelon
Prof. dr. Rob J. Kusters
Public defence of the PhD thesis dissertation
- Readable slides -
IT projects and products are more and more challenging,
but more and more rewarding
IT projects are often complex
Projects derail, face significant challenges
Failure rates in IT are particularly high
Standish Group, 1995:
31% of projects are canceled
52% of projects cost 189% the original
16.2% are on-time/on-budget
Standish Group, 2020:
31% of projects are successful
50% are challenged
19% fail
Some projects are particularly large and complex
The cost may be huge
Schengen Information System (SIS II) launched in 2013 - 6 years late, 8 times more expensive
than the initial estimate, at a final cost of €500 million
Arianne 5 rocket exploded in 1996, due to an erroneous data conversion from 64-bit floating
point value to 16-bit signed integer, because of reusing legacy software from Arianne 4 - 370
mil Eur loss.
x-ray machine Therac-25, 11 machines in 1982, 6 accidents, 3 deaths
Despite all these challenges, we are doing
more and more complex IT projects and products.
The main concern of system engineering is not
how to eliminate complexity, but how to make
it work. Because complexity works (Maurer).
The smart-phone is a very complex product, built with complex
Because of this complexity, the software crashes, the battery doesn’t
last, screens break, there are issues related to interoperability,
standardization, dependencies, privacy, security, GDPR.
But the smart-phone works.
Complexity works. Complexity is ubiquitous:all around us.
Facebook, SMS, AI, smart-cars, smart-phones:
examples of technology used differently than
Sometimes we don’t even understand exactly
how this technology works - but it does.
Facebook is different than the sum of its
components. Changing the brand to Meta adds
even more complexity, which they embrace.
Extraordinary impact of technology in Covid-2019
society. Our world changed and adapted. Faced
with new challenges, we started to use
technology in new ways. We are not limited by
skeumorphism = mimic the physical world.
Instead we change the way we collaborate and
Complex projects create complex products, for complex markets,
in complex organizations, with complex processes.
Complexity works.
Modern IT engineering
uses complexity
to deliver value,
benefits, functionality.
Goal: contribute to the understanding and management of complex IT
Enterprise and IT governance: why, how, alignment
Why are we doing these complex IT projects?
How to deliver them succesfully and aligned with organizational goals?
Objective: Design, validation, and evaluation of a set of tools for the
identification, analysis, and management of IT project complexity
Constructivist philosophy
Qualitative, iterative approach.
Design science Wieringa.
Typical for solving wicked problems, and
engineering problems
Validation: in a theoretical, laboratory setting
Checking if the artifacts support the initial
Equivalent to Technology Readiness Level TRL 4
Evaluation: after actual deployment/
implementation in practice, in relevant industry
Equivalent to TRL6
Sub-projects have intermediary
resulted in published papers.
P1: Investigation
P2: Theoretical foundation. Choices
regarding our approach to IT prj.
P3: Framework to support
Structured approach to IT project
complexity management
Anchoring new tools
Inventory of tools; identify gaps in the
P4-P5: Design, validate, deploy and
test in practice the proposed tools
and concepts
2 design-cycles and 1 engineering cycle.
Research questions
. Results hightlights
Published results
literature review
RQ1. Definitions and approaches
RQ2. Characteristics
RQ3. Identification & measurement tools
(Morcov, Pintelon, &
Kusters, 2020a)
P2. Theoretical
RQ4. Appropriate theoretical
Positive, Negative, & Appropriate Complexity
Published as part of
P3. Framework
IT-PCM Framework
ing the tools design & deployment
(Morcov, Pintelon, &
Kusters, 2021a)
P4. Tools
RQ6. Tools for complexity identification,
analysis, management:
Complexity Effect Scale
Complexity Source/Effect Segmentation Matrix
Mitigation Strategies Matrix
Complexity Register
(Morcov, Pintelon, &
Kusters, 2020b)
P5. Practical
RQ7. What is the contribution of the designed
tools to project success
(Morcov, Pintelon, &
Kusters, 2021b)
“Difficult to understand, foresee and keep under control, even
when given reasonably complete information about its
Structural complexity: complicated.
Consisting of many varied
interrelated parts
Dynamic complexity: ambiguity, uncertainty, propagation,
nonlinearity, complex feedback loops, emergence,
Significant impact of small factors: Lorenz’s Butterfly
effect 1963, Ray Bradbury’s A sound of Thunder 1952.
and of very rare events: Taleb’s Black Swan
Significant ambiguity in
the terminology
and in the domain
Management effort: Low
Aristotle Euclid
A complexity of complexities
P2. Holistic view
A complex project system is formed
of complex project sub-systems.
These interact with each other and
generate effects such as
Internal vs. external complexity.
Ethical, legal, regulatory,
compliance sub-system.
(based on Maurer’s complexity domains)
In contemporary research and practice , project complexity is always negative a purely
pessimistic perspective
The only recommended strategies for complexity management are reduce, decompose,
eliminate complexity, simplify, divide-et-impera
This approach misses out on opportunities
New perspective:
Positive complexity is the complexity that adds value to our project, and whose
contribution to project success outweighs the associated negative consequences
Appropriate (requisite) complexity is the complexity that is needed for the project to
reach its objectives, or whose contribution to project success balances the negative
effects, or the cost of mitigation outweighs negative manifestations
Negative complexity is the complexity that hinders project success”.
Innovation, creativity, adaptiveness have always been related to complexity.
Innovation occurs at the edge of chaos.
Systems must be taken outside equilibrium to innovate (Stacey, 1995)
Systems acquire complexity to evolve & survive (Beer, 1972)
Opportunities in the chaotic domain for decision-making (Cynefin, Snowden)
Law of requisite complexity/variety cybernetics: in order to remain viable, systems must
increase their internal complexity to match and exceed the complexity of the external
environment (McKelvey & Boisot, 2009)
Antifragility: new approach, contrasting with the traditional resistance + resilience
approaches to vulnerability management (Taleb, 2012)
Similar to opportunities in risk management (in PMBoK since 1996)
the project management Knowledge Area that includes processes to
understand, plan strategy and responses, and manage project
It supports project success, by
enhancing Positive Complexity
reducing Negative Complexity
5 processes
Inputs, outputs, tools and techniques
1. Plan: red-flag complexity - initial
complexity assessment
2, 3. Analysis: dependency modeling,
detailed analysis
4. Actions
5. Monitor, control, evaluate
Main tool for dynamic complexity:
monitor for change
Inventory of available tools + gaps
Configuration management
Change management
Dependency (DSM, DMM, MDM) & traceability matrix
(requirements, stakeholders, changes) (Maurer 2017)
(Marle&Vidal 2016)
Multiple Domain Matrix (MDM)
Positive &
Appropriate Negative
Reusability *)
Many varied inter-
Large budget,
political priority.
New technologies.
Unclear objectives
scope agility
Large number and
variety of
Unclear objectives
*) Examples
Response strategy
Complexity Effect
Positive Appropriate Negative
Create, enhance x
Use (exploit) x
Accept / ignore x x x
Simplify / reduce x
Avoid / eliminate x
“In order to be useful, any tool must generate actions”.
Tools deployed, tested and evaluated
repeatedly over several months
5 live IT projects
18 participants
7 months
Video recorded interviews
Text analysis
Focus on qualitative and negative
Why, when, why not, how
EPALE is the pan-European,
multilingual, open membership
community of adult learning
professionals and policymakers
European Commission project
Collaboration and eLearning portal, mobile app.
(Drupal, Open Europa, Moodle, AWS)
Content, hosting, maintenance, operation
Management of the EU Central Support Service
Coordination of 38 National Support Service centers,
community management
Communication, social media,
large-scale events
5 Directorates and Agencies of EC
National authorities
Consortium of 2 partners
Various subcontractors
Central Support team
38 National teams
4000 participants attended the
Annual Conference 2020
Hass tool
Cifter tool
Strong support to red-flag
Strong support for action plan
/ MSM.
Lower scores from top-mgmt
for introducing new tools, due
to overhead
Recommendation: combine
complexity and risk mgmt.
Fit-for-purpose: only projects “red-flagged” as complex should receive
special treatment
Any tool to support understanding is important
Checklists and templates needed
Tools should be deployed as early as possible
Risks and complexity management overlap, but are also complementary
The importance of awareness
Positive complexity supports focusing on opportunities
Complexity generates risks, but also risk generates complexity
Positive complexity generates opportunities
Negative compl. generates risks
Risk is reactive, focused on external events, like vulnerability mgmt.
Risk mgmt. doesnt analyse internal behaviour or structure
Complexity focuses on the system. It is proactive.
Risk & complexity are complementary, should be applied together
The importance of awareness: choosing the right tools
Review of the state-of-the art
Common language. Structured literature review (RQ1-3)
Inventory of approaches, classifications, measures
Insights, new perspectives on complexity
Positive, Negative & Appropriate Complexity. Holistic model (RQ4)
IT Project Complexity Management. IT-PCM Framework (RQ5)
Practical tools
Measurement tool
Complexity Effect Scale CES
Complexity Source/Effect Segmentation Matrix COSM
Mitigation Strategies Matrix MSM
Complexity Register CoRe (RQ6-7)
Theoretical and practical contributions
No golden bullet or universal solution
These tools will not provide a magic solution to project complexity
Implementation of management tools is context-dependent
Inventory cannot be exhaustive nor definitive
Qualitative research / design science is a journey,
formed of trial-and-error cycles
The roles of academic and consultant often overlap
The proposed tools aim to support
recognizing, understanding, managing complexity in a structured way
prioritizing projects, resource planning
reducing risks, increasing project success rates
Complexity is a ubiquitous reality in modern engineering &
It generates risk, but also creates opportunities.
Modern IT engineering uses complexity to deliver value
Positive & Appropriate complexity can act as catalysts for opportunities
Morcov, S., Pintelon, L., & Kusters, R. J. (2021). A Practical Assessment of Modern IT Project Complexity
Management Tools. International Journal of Information Technology Project Management
Morcov, S., Pintelon, L., & Kusters, R. J. (2021). A Framework for IT Project Complexity Management.
IADIS IS 2021 (pp. 61-68)
Morcov, S., Pintelon, L., & Kusters, R. J. (2020). IT Project Complexity Management Based on Sources
and Effects: Positive, Appropriate and Negative. Proceedings of the Romanian Academy - Series A,
21(4), 329-336
Morcov, S., Pintelon, L., & Kusters, R. J. (2020). Definitions, characteristics and measures of IT Project
Complexity - a Systematic Literature Review. International Journal of Information Systems and Project
Management, 8(2), 5-21
Baccarini, D. (1996). The concept of project complexity, a review. International Journal of Project
Management, 14(4), 201-204
Benbya, H., & McKelvey, B. (2006). Using coevolutionary and complexity theories to improve IS alignment: a
multi-level approach. Journal of Information Technology, 21, 284-298
Lorenz, E. N. (1963, March). Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, 20(2),
Marle, F., & Vidal, L.-A. (2016). Managing Complex, High Risk Projects - A Guide to Basic and Advanced
Project Management. London: Springer-Verlag
Maurer, M. (2017). Complexity Management in Engineering Design a Primer. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer
PMI. (2017). PMBOK Guide
Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007, Nov.). A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business
Review, 85(11), 68-76
Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House
Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House
Wieringa, R. J. (2014). Design Science Methodology for Information Systems and Software Engineering.
Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer
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