Navigating Complexity



By Bob Prieto

Jupiter, Florida


The greater the complexity of a project the greater the importance of transformational leadership. This is essential as uncertainty grows in large complex projects. A more iterative project planning process underpinned by iterative project risk assessment is required, so we may quickly understand when a project execution plan no longer maps to reality and when the project’s risk profile has changed in ways that demand new strategies or reallocated focus for dealing with risk.

Large complex projects must have execution resiliency built into project plans, and frequent risk assessments coupled with complexity assessment can be used to continually seek ways to reduce complexity, strengthening resiliency in the process.

In this paper we look at cyclomatic and quantum approaches to assessing complexity in large complex programs considering analogous approaches in other domains . The first of these methods is well-established while quantum complexity has not been previously extended to the project management domain.

Cyclomatic Complexity

Every project execution plan has a number of paths that run through it. The analog is a large computer program with 100,000-plus lines of code. Cyclomatic complexity analysis allows different execution approaches to be compared from a complexity standpoint guiding us to reduced complexity approaches with a reduction in the attendant but often unseen risks.

Formal methodologies and tools, developed for use in the software and other industries, exist to characterize the complexity of a system, represented here by the program’s execution plan; determine the risk exposure of such dynamic systems; and determine where the point of critical complexity is and thus how close to fragility and vulnerability the proposed execution plan may be[1].

In this paper we will look at the application of cyclomatic complexity analysis to large complex projects with the objective of:

  • Calculating a complexity score for a given execution strategy
  • Enabling comparison of alternative execution strategies from a complexity perspective
  • Assessing how complexity changes over the execution of the project to identify regions of increased complexity to enable complexity reduction
  • Creating a complexity measure that is integrated with other project dashboard elements
  • Strategies for reducing complexity
  • Providing a model for refined complexity measures drawing on the ideas presented in “Measurement of Complexity in Large Complex Projects”[2] and the “Quantum Project Management” model[3]

Cyclomatic Complexity Analysis

Cyclomatic complexity is a metric used to assess the complexity of a program. It quantifies the number of decision points within the code and number of linearly independent paths. It reflects how intricate your program’s control flow is. More paths mean higher complexity. Several well-established methodologies exist for calculating cyclomatic complexity and its use over the years has resulted in identifying strategies for reducing program complexity. These strategies provide analogs to evaluate in the context of large complex projects.

Cyclomatic complexity is computed using the Control Flow Graph (CFG) of the program. In the CFG, nodes represent groups of commands, and directed edges connect nodes if the second command might immediately follow the first one. Major deliverables become high-level nodes. Sub-deliverables and tasks form the lower-level nodes.

Creating a control flow graph (CFG) from a work breakdown structure (WBS) involves translating the hierarchical decomposition of tasks in the WBS into a graphical representation, such as what we may see in a Network Diagram or Gantt chart, which captures the flow of execution. Let us break down the process step by step:


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How to cite this paper: Prieto, R. (2024). Navigating Complexity, PM World Journal, Vol. XIII, Issue VI, June Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/pmwj142-Jun2024-Prieto-Navigating-Complexity.pdf

About the Author

Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management LLC
Jupiter, Florida, USA


Bob Prieto is Chairman & CEO of Strategic Program Management LLC focused on strengthening engineering and construction organizations and improving capital efficiency in large capital construction programs. Previously Bob was a senior vice president of Fluor focused on the development, delivery and turnaround of large, complex projects worldwide across the firm’s business lines, and Chairman of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Bob’s board level experience includes Parsons Brinckerhoff (Chairman); Cardno (ASX listed; Non-executive director); Mott MacDonald (Independent Member of the Shareholders Committe); and Dar al Riyadh Group (current)

Bob consults with owners of large, complex capital asset programs in the development of programmatic delivery strategies encompassing planning, engineering, procurement, construction, financing, and enterprise asset management. He has assisted engineering and construction organizations improve their strategy and execution and has served as an executive coach to a new CEO. He is author of nine books, 950 papers and National Academy of Construction Executive Insights, and an inventor on 4 issued patents.

Bob’s industry involvement includes ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction and Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA). He serves on the New York University Abu Dhabi Engineering International Advisory Council and previously served as a trustee of Polytechnic University and the Millennium Challenge Corporation Advisory Board. He was appointed as an honorary global advisor for the PM World Journal and Library.

Bob served until 2006 as one of three U.S. presidential appointees to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC). He chaired the World Economic Forum’s Engineering & Construction Governors and co-chaired the infrastructure task force in New York after 9/11.  He can be contacted at rpstrategic@comcast.net.

[1] The GIGA Factor; Program Management in the Engineering & Construction Industry; CMAA; ISBN 978-1-938014-99-4; 2011
[2] Prieto, R. (2024). Measurement of Complexity in Large Complex Projects, PM World Journal, Vol. XIII, Issue IV, April 2024. https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/pmwj140-Apr2024-Prieto-Measurement-of-Complexity-in-Large-Complex-Projects.pdf
[3] Prieto, R. (2024). Quantum Project Management, PM World Journal, Vol. XIII, Issue I, January 2024. https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/pmwj137-Jan2024-Prieto-Quantum-Project-Management-.pdf