Mitigating the multi-dimensional complexity of a megaprogram

lessons learned from EXPO 2015


Walter Ginevri, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, PMI-PBA,

Managing Partner, PM for Complexity - Past President, PMI Northern Italy Chapter

Stefano Acbano, PMP

Participants Program Manager & BIE Relations Participants Division, EXPO 2015

The EXPO 2015, the universal exhibition that will be held in Milan from 1 May to 31 October, is the perfect paradigm of a complex program. In fact, it's characterized by an unusual combination of three levels of complexity: the structural complexity related to the size, the variety, and the number of interdependencies among its elements; the socio-political complexity, due to the involvement of more than 130 participating countries; and the emerging complexity, due to the uncertainty and continuous changes that make the decision-making process very problematic.

Since the complexity cannot be eliminated, but only mitigated, the EXPO 2015 program team adopted a set of governance practices for each complexity level in order to resolve, reduce, or run with it.


The preparation of Expo 2015 began in April, 2008. It took seven years to realise a six months-long event, gathering the world around the theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”

The registration dossier, submitted to the Bureau International des Expositions or International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE) in 2010, can be considered the Program Charter of Expo 2015. Some key figures contained in that document summarize part of the challenge undertaken by the organizer:

  • Preparation of an exhibition site (green and brownfield) of 1 million square meters with 1.3 bln/€ of public funds for infrastructures.
  • 130 participating countries organized in self-built pavilions and thematic clusters.
  • 20 million visitors of which 30% from abroad, with an average daily attendance of 110,000 visitors.

The overall business plan was based on the principle that public funds could have been dedicated only to the realisation of infrastructures. Operating costs for the realisation of the event should have been covered by equal revenues. For the realisation of the event was created Expo 2015 S.p.A., a limited company in which the Italian Government holds 40%, Region Lombardy and the City of Milano, 20% each, and the Province of Milano with the Milan Chamber of commerce, 10% each. Thus, the realisation of the exhibition site and the management of the event were grouped in a single company, with the precise objective of a strong coordination between these two fields that, in mega events, are often realized by different entities.

The period preceding the opening of the event can be split in three main phases with specific characteristics, among which:

  • From Y-7 to Y-5: start-up of the company with the recruiting of the top managers, drafting of strategic plans, definition of the long term budget, drafting of the main processes, and beginning of infrastructures works.
  • From Y-5 to Y-2: development of the organizational structure and implementation of executive plans in all event divisions.
  • From Y-2 to Y: definition of processes in the event perspective; conclusion of infrastructures; tests; drafting of dismantling processes.

The development of the programme is accompanied by the fast growth of all needed processes. The organizational structure, extremely lean in the first phase, becomes more hierarchic and the decision adoption more formal advancing towards the opening.

Planning activities gradually end during the second phase of the preparation. Staff involved in such activities is employed in the functions created. A Monitor and Control office verifies the advancement and reports to the board of directors.

Assessing Program Complexity

During the last decade, many studies and researches showed that projects and programs have many characteristics in common with living systems and, in wider terms, with the so-called Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). These are the typical characteristics of a CAS that we can easily find in the majority of projects and programs:

  • Nonlinear relationships: the presence of many autonomous elements interacting with each other in various ways (e.g. stakeholders) not referable to simple cause-effect relationships.
  • Systemic view and unpredictability: the difficulty of representing the global structure and, in addition, the difficulty to forecast the future state on the basis of historical data.
  • Auto-organization: the capability to autonomously generate collective behaviors as the result of reciprocal interactions, constant feedback, and the application of simple rules of behaviour.
  • Edge of chaos: the capability to modify the internal structure and co-evolve with the external context, thanks to a dynamic balance between order and disorder.

Thanks to my volunteer work within the PMI Northern Italy Chapter, I had the great opportunity of leading a multi-year research involving a team of senior project and program managers, together with experts of different disciplines such as: military strategy, ethnography, philosophy of science, and management theories. Thanks to this interdisciplinary study (Varanini & Ginevri, 2012), we could identify a set of approaches and best practices aimed at answering the following questions:

  • What are the main elements and factors necessary for understanding and handling project complexity? In other words, what are the typical “complexity amplifiers” in a project?
  • What are the approaches and tools than can enhance the comprehension of these factors? In other words, can we mitigate the effects of the above-mentioned “complexity amplifiers?”

In January 2014, also thanks to a PMI Northern Italy Chapter initiative, I had a further opportunity of inviting Stefano Acbano for a presentation of the main complexity factors of the EXPO 2015 event.

Within the same period, I was studying an accurate study (Maylor, Turner, & Murray-Webster, 2013) focused on the identification, assessment, and active management of three dimensions of complexity:

  • structural complexity, associated with size, variety, and breadth of scope; number, location and types of stakeholders; and level of interdependence of people or tasks
  • socio-political complexity, associated with the program's importance, its people, power, and politics, both within the project team and in the wider stakeholder communities
  • emergent complexity, associated with uncertainty and change that are typically the result of novelty of technology or process, scarcity of lessons learned, and non-availability of information on which to make decisions

This lucky coincidence allowed me to involve Stefano Acbano in the retrospection of the EXPO 2015 program in order to assess its complexity factors and then identify the mitigation strategy that has been adopted to resolve, reduce, or run with these factors.

The following section contains the result of this retrospective analysis and represents a meaningful case study for being aware of two fundamental assumptions:

  • program complexity can be mitigated, but not eliminated, with the only exception being “self-inflicted” complexity due to organizational inefficiencies
  • program complexity can be actively managed through a mitigation strategy compatible with organizational capabilities and differentiated by complexity kind (structural, emergent, etc.)

Mitigating Program Complexity

The evaluation of the complexity of a programme like a World Expo, should, from the very beginning, take into account some background factors that have a meaningful impact on many of the key indicators that could find their place on the management dashboard.

The programme is firstly drafted no more than nine years before the six months-long event takes place. Such a period of time is, nowadays, an era in the macro-economic dynamics and, despite the steadiness of the institutional support, severe economic crisis can lead to an extra management effort where it doesn't result on a review of primary elements of the event itself. In the socio-political perspective, the bidding campaign and the first stages of planning and execution of the project coincided with the world financial crisis. As a mitigation plan, the essence of the event has been preserved despite a generalized shrinking of public investments deepening each single line of the long term budget and forcing all the management to make an extra effort of awareness concerning assumptions and targets. This healthy strategy was beneficial for the communication of the event with the main stakeholders, and inaugurated a routine that involved a yearly complete review of the long term budget and a bi-annual review of the budget.

A further complexity element is related to the nature of the international participants. World Expo, originally conceived for countries, is regulated by an international treaty on the base of which, the organizer is entrusted with the preparation of an event whose infrastructures are, in large part, realized by independent participants.

This structural complexity, due to the plurality of international stakeholders, calls upon the organizer to implement, from the earliest phases, a strategy to provide uninterrupted support for the success of the programme. In this, the BIE plays a crucial role, providing high level advice and the necessary functional platform to discuss the main formal documents with other members. At the same time, as further mitigation, participants and the organizer can considerably benefit from “early engagement,” mostly where processes are characterized by bureaucratic sophistication.

On the domestic front, an accurate work of scope definition between the organizer and other local and central authorities, sets the terms of collaboration on all those subjects that will play a crucial role to enable all key stakeholders in seizing their targets. Emergent complexity comes out mainly where the projects under the responsibility of external stakeholders need information that will be available only at a later stage. Continuous updates will assess the alignment with the needs by means of institutional meetings and could help mitigating issues as they arise. Where this wouldn't be possible, acceptance of new, unforeseen requirements could represent the only possible solution.

The fast evolution of the programme values significantly, the familiarity with the developing working culture. Structural complexity resulting from the shortage of experienced resources is, in many cases, faced with job enlargement to maintain a seamless grasp toward the target. Continuous adjustments to the organizational structure not only mirror the growth of the activities, but can also respond to the need of rationalizing the beginning of new functions.

Besides the organizational factors, procurement activities could also present a high level of complexity, mainly in the early stages of the programme. The definition of a wrong procurement strategy could have significant impact on cost and time management. An accurate identification of the administrative constraints for all the main procurement chapters led not only to a reliable scheduling of the procurement activities, but also allowed the research of partners issuing requests for proposal aimed at contributing to the overall economic sustainability of the initiative.


Even if the EXPO 2015 case contains many differentiating elements with respect to the typical programs of the business world, the presence of a unique mix of structural, socio-political, and emergent complexity increases significantly, the value of the lessons learned from this extraordinary event.

For this reason, our conclusion is summarized in two remarks addressed to the future of a discipline (project/program/portfolio management) and a profession (project/program/portfolio manager) that are obliged to a continuous evolution and innovation.

First remark: if we consider the most effective techniques of planning and control, we must recognize that they are an essential tool to manage the structural complexity and, only in a limited measure, the socio-political and emergent complexity. This means that we need an innovative set of managerial approaches and support tools, not only for assessing these kinds of complexity, but also for selecting the mitigation strategy compliant with the organization's capability. Within this context, the increasing attention of the Project Management Institute on studies and publications that are focused on complexity (such as the recent delivery of Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide), (PMI, 2014), is a very promising signal for the next future.

Second remark: if we consider the contents of the professional development paths addressed to project/program/portfolio managers, we must recognize that the weighted importance of each kind of complexity is very unbalanced in favour of the ability of managing the structural complexity. On the other side, if we consider the weighted importance of each kind of complexity in a program or big project, we must recognize that the higher weight is represented by the socio-political and emergent complexity. How to face this evident contradiction? By increasing the interdisciplinary content of the professional development paths through a higher presence of humanistic disciplines and therefore, a better balance with the scientific ones.


Varanini, F., & Ginevri, W. (2012). Projects and complexity. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Maylor, H. R., Turner, N. W., & Murray-Webster, R. (2013). How hard can it be?: Actively managing complexity in technology projects. Cranfield, UK: International Centre for Programme Management at Cranfield University School of Management.

Project Management Institute. (2014). Navigating complexity: A practice guide. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2015, Walter Ginevri & Stefano Acbano
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI EMEA Congress Proceedings – London, UK



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