The shift in the project management profession

from complication to complexity


In recent years, project management has faced an impressive evolution in the expansion of its scope. One of the best illustrations of this evolution is the emergence of standards addressing program or portfolio management. Thus, the roles and responsibilities of the project manager have also evolved tremendously.

Because this role is basically described in the different project management standards, the project manager is responsible for delivering the outcome of the project, taking into account the classic triple constraint of time, cost, and quality; and, most of the time, this is the case in most organizations. This vision of the performance of a project, and often its success, describing the “technical,” “complicated” aspects of project management, represents one dimension the project manager needs to address.

But, even if respecting and delivering in the parameters of the triple constraint reflect good project management performance, this does not reflect the success of a project. These days, the success of a project must be measured with regard to the value produced by the outcome of the project. In many organizations, it is easy to deliver on time and on budget an outcome that doesn't produce the value expected by the project stakeholders. Even if the project is delivered within the triple constraint, if its outcome fails in delivering that value, the optimal use of resources by the project manager was a waste to the organization.

The delivery of value can only be accomplished by applying a strong management process, taking into account the stakeholders and their expectations throughout the project—extending the very scope of the project manager to deliver not only the project right, but also delivering the right project and the right way for the right stakeholders to fulfill the right expectations. This definitely adds new dimensions to the single project management technical aspects of the triple constraint, and by adding new layers and dimensions, the value context to be addressed by the project manager moves from complication to complexity.

In this paper, we will explore these new dimensions, connecting projects, operations, programs, and strategy, using the principles of value management and complexity management to define, address, and achieve project success. As a conclusion, we will also show operationally how to define and measure value through a project value chain, which helps project managers to identify stakeholders, express their expectations, identify their needs, and formalize the project's objectives.

The first aspect to consider is the definition of project success. What is project success?

For the project manager, it's usually related to the delivery of scope, time, cost, and quality, but how about a project delivered in these constraints and for which the organization has never been able to sell the outcome and get the expected profit? Obviously, it's a failure even if properly delivered because it was an efficient waste of the organization's resources. How about a project that was four times over budget, twice over timeline, and not conforming to the specification, but for which the outcome delivered a high unexpected value? Is this a success or a failure?

Sometimes a project considered a success is finally turned into a failure and another considered a failure turns out to be a huge success. How does an organization ensure it is undertaking the right investment and for the right reasons?

The role of the sponsor is of course essential; according to the definition in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008), he or she is responsible for the delivery of the business benefits expected from the outcome of the project to the organization and to the stakeholders. Stating this, we accept that the project itself is not delivering the Value; the value is only realized through the exploitation of its outcome and the project itself as a process is only a cost and, at best, an investment. Success is only achieved by realizing the benefits expected from this outcome and delivery is the responsibility of the project manager. The sponsor can't realize any benefit if the project manager doesn't deliver, and the project manager can't deliver if the sponsor doesn't provide him or her with the required resources and doesn't ensure that the business case is reliable and that the project justification is solid.

The first conclusion we can draw from these statements is that the success of a project lies in the ability of its outcome to produce value, and the second conclusion is that, in the end, the project manager and the project sponsor are jointly responsible for the realization of that value.

A project is then not measured on the triple constraint, but also on its ability to deliver the benefits expected, Delivering the expected benefits is usually considered as being the outcome of a program if we rely on the definitions given in the Program Management Standard—Second Edition (PMI, 1996). This is even one of the main differences between a project and a program and it's also what creates the link between these two layers of the organization's strategy.

The first factor of success for a project will lie in the alignment of this component with the strategy of the organization.

The alignment of strategic components, from The Project Driven Strategic Chain (Lazar, 2010)

Exhibit 1 – The alignment of strategic components, from The Project Driven Strategic Chain (Lazar, 2010).

The alignment guarantees that the outcome of the project will contribute to the achievement of the goal of the program, itself being aligned with the strategic vision of the organization and the performance targets of the different portfolios in place.

To produce an outcome that will serve the realization of the organization's strategic vision, the project manager must have a clear understanding and perception of this strategic vision. The goal of the programs is to split of strategic vision into smaller and easier to understand elements, and the objectives of the projects are extracted from these goals. Splitting the vision into more concrete elements is easier to manage than a broader statement of expected benefits. Does this mean that a project is obviously integrated into a program, or that a stand-alone project has to be considered a program? Not necessarily, but its objectives have come from this strategic vision, which shows the entire organization in which direction the efforts have to be oriented, making the factors of the key metrics in this strategic alignment the definition of project success and its measurement.

One could argue that the steering of this strategic alignment is the responsibility of the project sponsor, not the project manager. This statement is no longer true, especially in times when resources are so scarce and productivity targets so high. The project manager's responsibility is to ensure that the resources he or she controls are used efficiently by not only delivering the project right, but also delivering the right project. It will be his or her responsibility to alert the sponsor and the organization that the resources committed to the project (i.e., the project itself) are not able to deliver the expected value and recommend the early closure of the project or reconsideration of its business case, even if the time, /cost, and quality metrics are good.

The second factor in project success, which will effectively define the operational aspects of operational success, will be related to the stakeholders' perception of the project.

Each stakeholder will have his or her own perception of the value related to the project's outcome, and this perception will be subjective. It lies in the responsibility of the sponsor, by owning the initiation processes of the project driving the project charter to ensure that the expectations of these stakeholders have been taken into account and that, most of all, no important stakeholder has been forgotten in this analysis.

The practical approach will be based on the construction of the project value chain, starting with the identification of the stakeholders and their categorization according to the “3 i's:” influence, interest, and intent.

Stakeholder Analysis from Value Management Practice (Thiry, 1996)

Exhibit 2 – Stakeholder Analysis from Value Management Practice (Thiry, 1996)

The second step is expressing stakeholders' expectations and gathering their perceptions of the project:

Expectations are diverse and competing, and the third step will highlight the steps that will deliver potential value, excluding the cosmetic aspects and making trade-offs between the elements to identify the needs.

Value is based on the balance between benefits and resources; then, we will define which of the needs will be addressed, formalizing the objectives of the project and committing to delivering them and defining the scope statement of the project.

These objectives will be defined and specified to be measurable by performing the functional analysis, describing objectives by functions. For each function there must be a deliverable to achieve it, as shown in the work breakdown structure (WBS).

Each function can also be measured according to the related key performance indicators defining the quality targets and used as metrics for the quality control process.

The value chain provides measures to define project success and its metrics, feeds major planning and monitoring processes, and secures a proper integration of the project's different components.

The Project Value Chain (Lazar, 2011)

Exhibit 3 – The Project Value Chain (Lazar, 2011)

It is only when the project manager can be sure that all the indicators related to the value chain are fulfilled that he or she can expect to have delivered a certain value to the organization and, by extension, to the stakeholders.

The sponsor will be held responsible for the delivery of these benefits, but the project manager shares this responsibility with him or her.

It is the project manager's role to ensure that the project is aligned with the expectations of the stakeholders, that the project management process is properly conducted and, finally, that the resources put under his or her responsibility are effectively used.

All of these aspects, going far beyond the classic triple constraint, are adding new dimensions to the project manager's job, further narrowing the frontiers between projects and programs and between project managers and program managers, by including a complete set of strategic perspectives, considerations, and constraints.

Above the single dimension of time, cost, and quality, the constraints put on organizations to more effectively use their resources and deliver value in a sustainable manner, are adding new dimensions and layers: the strategic alignment and the sustainable value.

This step into complexity and into the integration of the different strategic layers of the organization is changing and has already changed the profile of project management.

From the simple complication of technical aspects, project managers are shifting into the paradigm of managingcomplexity. Project managers must take into account the global picture and how the projects can be included in their organizations' broader perspective.


Bucero, A., & Englund, R.L. (2006). Project sponsorship. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lazar, O. (2007). 3PM and Strategic Alignment, a way for Corporate Governance, Presented during the International Project Management Workshop,, Published in conference proceedings, Lille, ESC-Lille, France.

Lazar, O. (October, 2010). The Project Driven Strategic Chain. PMI® Global Congress—North America, Washington, DC, USA.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2008). The standard for program management— Second edition. Newtown Square, PAAuthor.

Shenar, A., Milosevic, D., Dvir, D. & Thamhan, H. (2007). Linking project management to business strategy. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Thiry, M. (2010). Program management. Surrey, United Kingdom: Gower.

Thiry, M. (1996). Value management practice. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

© 2012, Olivier Lazar
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France



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