Levels of Complexity

In Project Management, Software Engineering, Strategy by Prabhu Missier

When it comes to starting a project and taking it through to completion there are usually 5 phases through which it can pass. They are :






Let’s take a look at each one of these phases.

The Random phase is when ideas and thoughts fly around freely and there is absolutely no structure to what is being discussed or thrown around. A parallel in Science would be “Brownian motion”. Most startups would be in this phase in the early days. As the Founder of the company or Manager of the project it is during this phase that you would show a lot of leadership and get people to see your vision.

From the Random phase a project or undertaking can move into the Chaotic phase where there is a strategy but there are no tactics which have been framed to implement the strategy. Think of a balloon filled with air where the skin of the balloon represents the strategy. Within the balloon it’s all “Brownian motion” again but you are at least guided by a strategy. As a leader you would need to show leadership and bring people within your fold as well as introduce some form of governance since a strategy is taking shape.

The Complex phase happens when rules start emerging. Ways to achieve the strategy are brainstormed and a lot of creative ideas flow in. From a leadership perspective you would need to now start spending a good deal of time not just leading from the front but also governing the situation by delegating and managing the ideation activities which are happening in the organization.

Once ideas have been simmering for some time, best practices start emerging as we enter the Complicated phase and there are now multiple ways and approaches to the problem you are trying to solve. A good deal of governance is needed during this phase where as a leader you would need to ensure the interfaces between the various groups are well defined. Even though this phase can be difficult to manage your team has risen above the chaos and complexities and is now a functioning unit.

In the final phase, a tried and tested way has been identified after several experiments with various practices and methods. Your organization is now in the Simple phase where everything is well defined and everyone knows what to do and how best to do it. As a manager your visionary leadership and the effort you have put into governance has paid off and you now need to manage the execution of the project using the methods and rules which have survived the test of time.

In summary, when your organization is in the random, chaotic and complex phases everything is unpredictable. As you mature into the complicated and simple phases everything becomes predictable.
Knowing what phase an organization is in can potentially help you qualify the statements made by leadership as accurate predictions, mere aspirations or grandiose delusions.