Scheduling Complexity & Mega Projects

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The management of mega-projects and complexity are seen as specialist disciplines that extend beyond traditional project management. This section considers the implications of complexity in the scheduling of mega-projects.

Topics included in complexity and mega-projects:

- Overview of complexity
- Scheduling complexity
- Useful External Web-links & Resources.

Other related sections of the PMKI:

- Complexity & Mega Projects (and Programs) 
- Construction Management

Overview of complexity

ComplexityComplexity & chaos. Chaos theorists are interested in the relationship between apparently ordered systems and their underlying instability and conversely, the rules that govern apparently chaotic behaviors. For example, shoals of fish and swarms of ants appear chaotic, but the way they behave is based on a set of very precise rules. Whereas chaordic systems may exhibit a degree of predictability at their higher levels but are completely unpredictable at the detail level. Examples include the weather and projects.

When focusing on systems, complexity is not a synonym for big or complicated, some large systems are inherently simple, some complicated systems are stable and predictable. Whereas other systems are inherently complex. Complexity in projects arises from two sources, firstly the people involved in the work, and their relationships, second the characteristics of the product being created. The challenge in scheduling complex projects is managing the unpredictability of future outcomes created by phenomenon such as emergence, and non-linearity.

WP: Complexity Theory. Complexity theory helps understand the social behaviors of teams and the networks of people involved in and around a project.

PP: A Simple View of ‘Complexity’ in Project Management. This paper traces the development of ‘Complexity Theory’ from its origins in Chaos Theory, links the theory to modern project management, and seeks to link the ideas within two other strands of research; ‘Social Networks’ and ‘Temporary Knowledge Organizations’, to Complexity Theory. Complexity theory helps understand the social behaviors of teams and networks of people involved in and around a project. The ideas apply equally to small in-house projects as to large complicated projects. In this regard, ‘complexity’ is not a synonym for ‘complicated’ or ‘large’. This paper briefly examines the underlying ideas and philosophies that have created ‘modern project management’ together with some emerging ideas such as projects being ‘temporary knowledge organizations’ (TKOs) [See also: The Origins of Modern Project Management]. From this theoretical framework the true nature of a ‘project’ is described from the perspective of the ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘actors’ engaged in the creation, execution, delivery and closure of the project. Then two critical aspects of project management practice are re-evaluated from a ‘complexity’ perspective.


Scheduling complexity

Planning Strategy

Scheduling was developed in the 1960s as a scientific computer based modelling process at a time when ‘command and control’ was the dominant management paradigm supported by the ideas of ‘scientific management’. Arguably, the development of scheduling as a discipline was the catalyst for the evolution of project management into its modern form. The artifacts created by schedulers generated the impression that the mathematical certainties calculated by their leading edge computer tools somehow translated into certain project outcomes.

Fast forward into the 21st century and the certainties are no longer so apparent:
- Most project run late
- Knowledge workers cannot be effectively managed using ‘command and control’ paradigms
- The ‘art’ of effective scheduling has largely disappeared from the project landscape
- Uncertainty and complexity are starting to take center stage

In response to these challenges, one approach has been to build ever greater sophistication into the basic CPM modelling process in an attempt to achieve certainty (or at least quantify the uncertainty). The problem with this approaches lays in the uniqueness of each project. To take one example Monte Carlo analysis can be used to develop an appreciation of the degree of uncertainty in a project. However, the basic assumption underlying the methodology is the presumption of a predictable distribution for the duration of a task (Triangular, Beta, Normal, etc) and as a consequence, the range of outcomes for whole project may be assessed with a degree of certainty. This fundamental assumption is based on a false premise. The ideas of a normal (Gaussian) distribution and the calculation of a standard deviation were based on measuring hundreds of similar events and the ‘standard deviation’ defines the degree of error within the data set; not the accuracy of ‘a single estimate’. Similar issues arise with adding additional layers of detail and complexity to the CPM model; the ‘extras’ do not prima facie improve the value of the CPM model.

In this environment the project schedule has two key roles to play, firstly as a tool to develop a common understanding of an optimum approach for achieving the project objectives and then as a flexible tool to measure the inevitable deviations from the plan and re-assess the best way forward. The rich symbolic language of a well constructed CPM is a far more effective way to communicate the complex ideas of timing, sequence and dependencies than words, provided the ‘project actors’ understand the value of the message and its limitations. Operating effectively in ‘the age of complexity’ will require many project schedulers to significantly expand their existing skill set.

PP: Scheduling in the Age of Complexity. This paper suggests that a radically different approach is needed to make scheduling relevant and useful in the 21st Century. Starting with the ideas derived from Complexity Theory, Complex Responsive Processes of Relating (CRPR) and the concept of the project team as a ‘Temporary Knowledge Organization (TKO) one can see the delivery of the project being crafted by thousands of individual decisions and actions taken by people who are ‘actors’ within the social network of the project team and its immediate surrounds. The role of ‘project management’ is to motivate, coordinate and lead the team towards the common objective of a successful project outcome. The project scheduler has a key role in this complex environment provided the right attitudes, skills and scheduling techniques are used in the optimum way. This paper:

  • Briefly outlines the evolution of scheduling leading to the current situation
  • Identifies the key elements in Complexity Theory, TKOs and Social Network theory as they apply to project scheduling
  • Highlights the critical importance of developing a ‘competent schedule’ as described in the Practice Standard for Scheduling Identifies the value of additional techniques such as Monte Carlo, Critical Chain and RDM in developing insights into the dynamics and sensitivity of the project.
  • Suggests the real role of a schedule, and the project scheduler in ‘the age of complexity'
  • Identifies the skills needed by a scheduler in a ‘new age project team’ to not only develop an ‘competent’ schedule but also a ‘useful’ schedule
  • Discusses some of the road blocks preventing the adoption of collaborative management in projects
  • Concludes by recommending a way forward to help re-establish the role of the scheduler and an effective schedule in the successful delivery of projects in the 21st Century.

Download the paper.

PP: Scheduling Complexity. No matter how sophisticated the software of how complex the project schedule is, no project schedule can foretell the future. Project planners and schedulers are not oracles (even if they use Primavera). Many projects finish late, disputes over contract delays are commonplace and the trend is getting worse. The response by owners has been to increase penalty payments for delayed completion, demand highly detailed schedules and frequently draft contract clauses that make changing the schedule difficult. All of these tactics have failed to change the steadily worsening trends in delayed completion. And as the apparent ability of contractors to manage time declines, the projects they are being asked to manage are becoming increasingly larger and more complex. Without a paradigm shift in thinking, the only people who will benefit from these trends will be the lawyers and the claims experts. But there are alternatives!

Research by the CIOB, adopted in part by the USA GAO offers a totally different approach to managing the use of the available time within a contract! Rather than setting up a schedule to record failure and support claims, the CIOB advocate a layered approach to time management that focuses on adapting behaviours to overcome problems and does not waste time developing esoteric detail. Unless you know exactly who will be doing the work, the methodology they will use and how ‘good’ they are; creating a detailed schedule is an arcane exercise, guaranteed to be wrong. The concept of schedule density advocates developing an overall ‘time budget’ for the project, resolving tactical problems for work in the current year and only expanding the schedule to the level of detail needed for effective control of the workforce within the current 3 month time-frame.

This paper précis the work of the CIOB and offer practical suggestions for the improvement of time management within the Australian context, including the professionalization of the scheduling discipline. When applied effectively, a proactive scheduling process can be a powerful influence on future behaviours and contribute significantly to project success. It is worth the investment!. 
Download the paper.

Prs: Avoiding the 'Tipping Point to Failure. The tipping point marks the boundary between linear changes and catastrophic change, the situation flips from predictable to unmanageable within the current context. Download the presentation

Art: Controlling Complex Projects. Applying the principle of auftragstaktik (or ‘bounded initiative’) to effectively manage complex projects.

PP: (The) Effective Management of Time on Mega Projects. Why there are so many problems and how to solve them? - The construction industry’s ability to effectively manage time is getting worse. In response to this challenge, the CIOB assembled an international team of project planning and scheduling experts to develop a Guide to Good Practice in the Management of Time in Complex Projects (the Guide). This paper identifies the key elements within the Guide that proactively contribute to the successful delivery of mega projects, relate these ideas to practical examples of their use on mega-projects and offer a way forward to improve time management.


Easy CPM is an easy-to-read book that incorporates the the research and ideas developed during the writing of the Guide to Good Practice in the Management of Time in Complex Projects.

Easy CPM Easy CPM is a course-in-a-book that provides practical training and guidance to individuals and organizations involved in developing or using CPM schedules based on the Critical Path Method (CPM). It is designed to act as both a reference, and practice guide, for people implementing CPM scheduling after they have learned to use the CPM scheduling software of their choice.

See more, free preview and buy ($35, immediate download).

Click through to our construction industry page for more on managing major construction projects.


Useful External Web-links & Resource

Access the Guild of Project Controls Body of Knowledge. A suite of process-based documents which define Project Controls (membership required):


Easy EVM

Work Performance Management

Stakeholder Work Sheet

Easy CPM

Work Performance Management

Stakeholder on a Page

EVM Work Sheet

Work Performance Management

Communication Plan

Easy Stakeholder Management

Project Charter Template