Appropriate Project Complexity Assessment at Airlines: An Analysis of Systematic Approaches

Across industries, project complexity has been increasing over decades evolving to be a determining factor for the success or failure in project management. In this context, many studies have demonstrated a significant correlation between an appropriate evaluation of project complexity, the decision for a well-fitting project model and its resulting economic effects for its execution and outcome. At major airlines, however, snapshot experiences of project management practitioners have indicated difficulties in achieving effective decision making for both an adequate project model and its administrative budgets based on individual evaluation of project complexity resulting into controversial debates amongst project stakeholders. Aside the natural subjectivity in perception, an ambiguity in key terminology (e.g. the meaning of complexity itself, complex vs. complicated) and politically influenced motivations were observed as fanning factors, too. Eventually, negatively affected time of delivery, exceeding demand for financial means and resources, and inherited risks on project success had been reported consequences. Therefore, this study was conducted with the primary objective to identify an appropriate approach for project complexity assessment (PCA) that shall help airlines to take more effective decisions towards an efficacious project model. The secondary objectives were to qualify the potential in the airline industry for an improved organizational performance by PCA and to clarify key terminology. The objectives of the study have been accomplished by conducting a diligent literature research, an explorative survey of 20 airlines, the utilization of the Helmsman Complexity Scale accompanied by expert interviews and the evaluation of common PCA methods (PCAM). Consequently, the identified situation in airline practice of both its project complexity and its utilization of PCAM have revealed the potential for many airlines to considerably enhance their decision processes and project economics by employing the conclusively proposed PCAM. However, limitations apply: comprehensive PCAM can´t avoid subjective components and thus can´t entirely prevent discussions caused by perception and individual experience. While this research has been subject to the common airline category of so-called Full-Service Network Carrier (FSNC) it is likely applicable for most major airlines of all categories. As an outlook for further research, further developing, testing and calibrating the outlined custom PCA model by a representative set of airlines may substantiate its applicability in practice.

Link to publication at ResearchGate

The Difference Between Complicated And Complex

Many authors of academic work in various fields have faced a challenge by defining the term ‘complex’. By this, it is common practice to illustrate how ‘complex’ distinguishes to the word ‘complicated’. While the Cynefin Framework developed by David J. Snowden and the Stacey Matrix from Ralph D. Stacey offer a tremendous contribution to the cause, it is always handy to get some allegorical support for the discourse. Johnnie Moore has formulated a couple of smart lines which especially would delight the enthusiast in airline complexity:

‘The wiring on an aircraft is complicated. To figure out where everything goes would take a long time. But if you studied it for long enough, you could know with (near) certainty what each electrical circuit does and how to control it. The system is ultimately knowable. If understanding it is important, the effort to study it and make a detailed diagram of it would be worthwhile.

So complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.

Now, put a crew and passengers in that aircraft and try to figure out what will happen on the flight. Suddenly we go from complicated to complex. You could study the lives of all these people for years, but you could never know all there is to know about how they will interact. You could make some guesses, but you can never know for sure. And the effort to study all the elements in more and more detail will never give you that certainty.

So complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

Managing humans will never be complicated. It will always be complex. So no book or diagram or expert is ever going to reveal the truth about managing people.’

Author: Moore J. (2005). More Space: Nine Antidotes To Complacency In Business.
The book is available at (direct link) 
Author’ web address:

Project Complexity Assessment (PCA) Tool

The Project Complexity Assessment (PCA) tool, described in the book ‘Project Complexity Assessment’¹ is targeted at the earliest lifecycle phases to give a quick indication of potential areas needing attention. It involves senior project team members independently completing a structured on-line 60-element questionnaire designed to quantify the level of the two orthogonal Complexity drivers: Capability drivers, which are relevant to the organisation and the individuals who make up the project team; and Project-specific drivers (what is complex in any one given situation is not necessarily so in different circumstances). The results are combined, analysed and presented back in a workshop environment, in which anomalous assessments may be discussed and resolved; an accommodated Project Complexity measure agreed; and areas of significant weakness/risk documented.

Download of the Excel tool:

Complexity Assessment questions without weightings.xls

¹Cavanagh, Michael. Project Complexity Assessment (Kindle Locations 569-576). ICCPM. Kindle Edition.

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