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Adapting governance for complex projects


This paper offers insights into methods for dealing with governance in complex projects. This is not a primer on complexity or strategies for dealing with it in general; rather it points readers towards interesting concepts and areas so they can develop their own ideas.

It is common for projects to be described as complex and for this to be cited as the reason a project has missed its targets. The term project complexity is used loosely to the point where it often means little more than saying a project is large, has many components or has been initiated with insufficient planning, or merely that the project manager finds it ‘difficult’.

David Snowden has identified a valuable distinction between projects and other systems, or components of such systems, that are inherently predictable and those that are not, which can be used to make strategic choices about how to address tasks (Snowden and Boone, 2007; Snowden, 2020). To provide a language for this distinction, Snowden proposed the use of the terms Clear and Complicated for systems where:

  • Clear means we can draw on best practice and generally find one optimum way to carry out the work, as with the design of a fire sprinkler system, subject to tight regulations, for a building
  • Complicated means there might be several feasible ways forward and we rely on experts to select one and customise it to our needs, as with the design of a user interface for a customer service terminal in a bank.

Both of these cases are reasonably predictable in that we can understand how the work will progress and what outputs it will create, especially with the benefit of expert advice in complicated cases. They are inherently predictable.

Other tasks might not have predictable outcomes, even with the benefit of expert advice and assistance. For instance, it would rarely be possible to know in advance what will emerge from the development of new community services, to meet loosely defined needs, through a collaboration between a public service agency, a community representative body and existing volunteer organisations addressing the same needs.

Any activity, be it a project or a business process, that is subject to the influence of multiple autonomous stakeholders whose objectives and priorities differ from one another, can experience this type of unpredictability. It arises not in the uncertainty of forecasting and estimating methods but in the uncertainty about the sequence of events that will emerge. As the work progresses, stakeholders will be stimulated by the unfolding work to amplify or object to the direction it is taking. The actions or suggestions of one stakeholder will trigger others to respond with approval, objections, fresh demands, or new suggestions.

In this domain, even the most detailed planning and tight change control cannot guarantee the course and outcome of the work. Facing an inevitably uncertain sequence of developments, workers in complexity science recommend that the most productive way to proceed is with:

  • Constant attention to how the work is emerging
  • Close engagement of people with multiple viewpoints
  • A predisposition to explore alternative pathways using light touch inexpensive methods
  • Willingness to change if a better way is discovered.

The word complexity is increasingly reserved for systems of this kind. This paper concerns how governance can be exercised in this fluid environment.

Working with complexity

Rigid fixed positions are rarely useful in a complex environment, which is not to say that we cannot exercise control. It just might be that the control is more akin to sailing a boat between islands than driving a train on tracks between two cities. Subject to the weather and other factors, our course might be updated day by day and, if we decide that is advantageous when we get close, we might land on a different part of the destination island from where we expected to land when we set out.

Few projects are uniformly clear, complicated or complex. Almost always there will be pockets of clarity, complication and complexity. This does not present any difficulties so long as it is recognised. Pragmatic adjustments to the way work is managed to deal with each type of system are straightforward. Separating work into these three domains can prove very valuable in its own right. Understanding the nature of a set of tasks in these terms and adopting an appropriate approach to them is generally the most efficient way to proceed. It is more effective than applying methods suited to one domain in another.

Acknowledging the inherent unpredictability of complex elements of a project offers an opportunity to set realistic expectations. This in turn can pre-empt disruptive reactions from senior managers when they are surprised by unforeseen developments.

From this standpoint, the distinction between complex and so-called traditional projects does not really exist. Most projects will have some components that fall into each camp. Some projects will tend more one way than the other and this will set the tone for the job as a whole. However, it is always prudent to consider whether different approaches might be relevant in pockets of work with different characteristics from the rest.

For instance, in the construction of a challenging viaduct:

  • The design activity that must cope with structural engineering of loads, managing environmental impacts on the land below and handling social pressures about the noise and visual impact of the finished structure might be complex
  • In contrast, while building the bridge once the design is settled will require considerable expertise, will be complicated and will still be subject to some uncertainty, the work will be generally predictable if experienced experts are on the job.

Similarly, in the development of a secure data terminal system for multi-agency emergency service vehicles in the field:

  • Designing the functionality of the terminal, the way it displays information and even the colours used on the screen may be complex as there will be fluidity in the scope of the information to be handled and differing priorities among stakeholder agencies, as well as cost-benefit trade-offs for some technical features to be balanced against a desire for specific functions
  • In contrast, purchasing the terminals, loading the system onto them and installing them in vehicles might be much less volatile, guided by detailed specifications, plans and procurement processes.

In each of these cases, it would be wise to adopt a governance approach coherent with the nature of the work: one that expects and enforces predictable progress, within realistic limits, for the complicated aspects of the work, and understands that the complex area might change focus from time to time and deviate from its initial course in order to deliver value to the business. If this legitimate fluidity is anticipated from the outset, it need not be disruptive and work can be managed to achieve a valuable outcome even if it differs a little from the initial concept.

By its nature, complexity is open ended. No one can provide a settled set of rules for dealing with it, but some useful principles can be identified. Some of them are discussed here. Snowden’s book and other Cognitive Edge resources are a good starting point for anyone seeking broader guidance (link here).

Project governance

Project management is mainly concerned with executing an agreed scope of work and managing the cost and duration of the work. Project governance concerns the business or organisational implications of projects and the value they deliver. One way the distinction is sometimes explained is to say that project management is about doing projects right while project governance is about doing the right projects. Obviously, those responsible for governance have a strong interest in the financial and schedule performance of projects but day to day management is not their role. Similarly, project managers have an interest in their projects delivering value to the business in which they operate but managing corporate strategy is not their role.

Since the term first appeared in the 1960s, project governance has been mentioned with increasing frequency every year, especially since 2000. Figure 1 shows occurrences in English language books since 1960. The absolute values on the vertical axis are not important; the important point is that the subject was barely mentioned until the end of the twentieth century, and then its usage grew rapidly.

Figure 1: References to project governance

With traditional approaches for project governance being embedded in the minds of professional project managers, it is not meaningful to discuss governance for complex projects in isolation. Existing practices must be part of any discussion of complex governance.

Traditional project governance

Governance of projects, programmes and portfolios overlap to some extent and all reside within an organisation’s general governance structures and practices. This paper was written with projects in mind, but the principles it discusses are broadly applicable to the organisation as a whole. There are matters to bear in mind and methods that are useful when complexity is found in any stratum of the organisation.

Without providing an exposition on current project governance practices, it is useful to lay out the key components. Some definitions are listed here.

Governance: principles, policies and framework by which an organization is directed and controlled (ISO 21500:2021, Clause 3.4; ISO 21505:2017, Clause 3.1; ISO TR 21506:2018, Clause 3.25)

Project governance: the framework, functions, and processes that guide project management activities in order to create a unique product, service, or result to meet organizational, strategic, and operational goals (Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK 6th Edition, p715)

Project governance: principles, policies and procedures by which a project is authorized and directed to accomplish agreed deliverables (ISO TR 21506:2018, Clause 3.60)

Programme governance: principles, policies and procedures by which a programme is authorized and directed to realize identified benefits (ISO TR 21506:2018, Clause 3.53)

This paper discusses the implications of complexity in terms of these three features of a project.

  1. PURPOSE – By setting out the goals, objectives and benefits that are sought, governance provides a framework within which project managers can make decisions and specifies how decisions outside those boundaries will be made.
  2. STRUCTURE – The structure within which authority and autonomy reside will generally reflect the organisational context within which a project is being executed: typically, a hierarchy from the project manager reporting to a project board or steering committee, then to program or portfolio managers, with the board managing the entire organisation.
  3. PROCESS – Delegations of authority and KPIs pass down the hierarchy. Regular and ad hoc reports of progress and challenges that might impede it pass back up.

Complex project governance

While traditional methods of project governance are not a good fit to complex projects, the parody of agile working summarised in a Dilbert cartoon, ‘no more planning and no more documentation – just start writing code and complaining’, is not helpful either. The volatility of complex systems does not sit well with detailed long-term plans and review processes based on long planning cycles.

Nevertheless, the objectives of project governance remain relevant in a complex space. Managers of complex projects need a framework within which they can operate and a means of handling matters that fall outside the envelope within which they have authority. The adoption of adaptive practices obviously intersects with this core requirement, but it does not remove the need for everyone to know the bounds of their authority and what they are expected to deliver.

Methods for executing complex projects as a whole are not settled and, given the nature of complexity, will always remain a diverse mix. Complex project governance is unlikely to be any different.

Work with complex systems cannot be reduced to a template. However, we can think about how to:

  • Preserve the features of traditional project governance that we need
  • Adjust traditional methods to suit complex projects where we can
  • Exploit methods devised for working with complexity in general
  • Recognise where structural challenges will remain.

Each of these four points is discussed here.


Those using resources to execute a project must be accountable to those who control the allocation of resources. The principal constraints might shift, on all or part of a project, from being to:

  • Deliver a fixed scope at minimum cost and duration, to
  • Deliver maximum scope within a fixed budget in minimum duration.

In either case, those providing the funding will want to understand what their money is buying and have insight into progress as work is underway.

Conventional control systems are not well suited to understanding work limited by cost while scope remains fluid. Corporate budgeting and planning practices are so deeply locked into fixed scope with cost and schedule KPIs that people steeped in them find it hard to steer projects when the focus is different.

Some are seeking to encourage more flexible budget and performance management, see for example Bogsnes et al (2016).


There is no simple way to make traditional governance methods fit complex projects, but two themes stand out:

  • Tolerating change without panicking
  • Willingness to react quickly and holistically.

Tolerating change does not mean uncritical acceptance but, if change is always seen as a sign of failure, intolerance and the way people react to it can create a cascade in which a project drives itself into trouble (Broadleaf, 2021). A descent into chaos can become unstoppable and must be pre-empted to avoid losing control. Similarly, the delays in tortuous approval processes leave room for a project to head off in an undesirable direction before it can be arrested.

Most projects aim to manage change deliberately, but perverse motivations are often baked into management systems. The pressure to perform can give management at each level an incentive to hold off reporting a problem until they see if they can resolve it (Figure 2). Anecdotal reports suggest that this can easily introduce a two to three month delay in variations being seen by the top governance level on a major engineering project.

Figure 2: Motivation to delay bad news


Methods for working with complex projects are yet to enter widespread use. At the same time there are sound approaches for dealing with complexity. In fact, almost any method for dealing with complexity could play a role in project management.

In particular, two important principles appear to offer the prospect of assisting the governance of complex projects:

  • Bringing senior managers into closer touch with those at the project working level and their direct observations, not limited to routine management reports
  • Drawing on multiple perspectives to ensure that, as far as practicable, no insights are missed.

Reducing the separation between project governance levels and the people implementing a project is sometimes referred to as disintermediation. It offers many benefits including:

  • Reducing the time taken for information to come to the attention of senior managers
  • Increasing the bandwidth of communication to include matters not designed into routine reports
  • Reducing the potential for bias at intermediate levels.

SenseMaker and related tools such as Spryng, for example, can be used to gather frequent informal observations. With a well-designed set of signifiers, drawing out patterns from these observations can highlight long term and emerging issues.

An indicative prompt and a set of basic signifiers that might be used for this purpose is shown in Figure 3. If, for example, observations arise showing progress is being maintained but productivity is adversely affected, foreshadowing a cost increase, or that particular suppliers are associated with a decline in the quality of the work, a cluster of related inputs from those with their hands on the work may signal this before it shows up in formal reports.

Figure 3: Signifiers

This alternative information pathway is overlaid on Figure 2 in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Disintermediation

Such methods have not been widely adopted in project management but clearly they have potential. Not only do they offer the prospect of rapid information flows, but they also place very few constraints on the content of that information, in contrast to routine reports that are usually based on rigid predefined formats.

Examples of low key yet effective methods, given good facilitation, for tapping into the knowledge held in a team and increasing communication between team members are discussed by Wong and Laurens (2022).


Some aspects of governance remain without a clear way forward in a complex setting. As is often the case in systems, some of the most difficult challenges can be found at interfaces, such as:

  • The boundary between corporate and program or project management
  • Internal relationships between units within a business where functions operate in strong silos, sometimes interacting through internal contracts
  • External contractual relationships.

Common examples of this dilemma are:

  • A project implemented within a traditional manufacturing business, where process flow is more important than the milestones used to frame project performance and operations personnel do not understand projects
  • A project in a heavy industrial business with a strong traditional time-cost-quality approach that has subcontracted a high technology section of the work to a specialist ICT business that structures its activity around a sequence of product releases rather than fixed scope developments
  • In the same vein, a project in a bureaucratic public sector organisation with limited project management expertise that places heavy reliance on a specialist ICT business that operates agile development practices.

Self-awareness is a good part of the answer to such challenges. Too many organisations are not really conscious of the way they operate and how it relates to others, like the fish that has no understanding of water because it is immersed in it and has never known anything else. There are practices that can be used to help groups bridge such gaps but, of course, they depend on the mismatched culture and governance practices being recognised in the first place.


Each of these strategic approaches offers a starting point for adjusting existing governance arrangements to suit complex projects. The way complexity permeates an individual project will affect how they are employed. Factors that affect how a complex project governance system is designed will include:

  • The proportion of a project in which emergent behaviour can arise
  • How potent the complex elements can be, a peripheral cosmetic feature versus a core design element for example
  • How fragmented or monolithic those complex areas are within the project, perhaps isolated in one big work package or peppered throughout the project.

In the face of these and other factors, such as the nature of an organisation’s existing governance arrangements, it is not useful to attempt to offer a settled approach to complex project governance. Project management teams, and the bodies to whom they report, have to give the matter some thought and work out for themselves what will work for best in their setting.


Complexity in projects is real and should not be used as an excuse for losing control. The governance challenges presented by complexity can be mitigated by:

  • Preserving those aspects of traditional governance that are applicable to complex systems, to avoid reinventing the wheel
  • Adopting resilient attitudes towards unforeseen change that will pre-empt reactions to changes triggering a descent into chaos
  • Exploiting methods designed for general complex systems work and applying them to projects
  • Making the effort to be aware of interface issues where governance will be difficult, being alert and ready to respond thoughtfully and rapidly when unavoidable disconnects crop up.

Rather than assuming one governance system will suit every project and simply re-using the sponsoring organisation’s standard approach, complexity demands conscious attention to the design of a project’s governance system. This need not be an onerous task but, instead of defaulting to standard practice, managers of complex projects will find it useful to consciously examine their governance arrangements and adjust them to take account of emergent behaviour while pursuing their project’s goals.


Bogsnes, B, D Larssen, A Olesen, S Player and F Röösli (2016) White Paper – Update of the Beyond Budgeting Principles. Beyond Budgeting Institute. (Link).

Broadleaf (2021) Extreme project schedule over run. Broadleaf Capital International. (Link).

ISO 21500:2021, Project, programme and portfolio management – Context and concepts. International Organization for Standardization, Geneva.

ISO 21505:2017, Project, programme and portfolio management – Guidance on governance. International Organization for Standardization, Geneva.

ISO TR 21506:2018, Project, programme and portfolio management – Vocabulary. International Organization for Standardization, Geneva.

Project Management Institute (2021) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 7th Edition, ISBN 978-1-62825-664-2.

Snowden, DJ (2020) Cynefin. Cognitive Edge Pte. Ltd.

Snowden, DJ and ME Boone (2007) A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85 (11) 68-76, November. (Link).

Wong, G and H Lourens (2022) Radical Innovation in Mining Management. Austmine. (Link).