Systems Nature of Large Complex Programs



By Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management LLC

Jupiter, Florida, USA



This paper explores the system characteristics and behaviors of large engineering and construction programs with a particular focus on those that would be characterized as complex. It recognizes the interrelated and interacting elements of both programs and projects as they strive to form a complex whole. Large complex programs and projects are not well bounded as classical project management theory as espoused by Taylor, Gantt and Fayol[1] would have us believe but rather behave in both independent and interconnected ways in a dynamic systems environment.

Large complex programs demonstrate the evolutionary nature of all complex systems; uncertainty; and emergence that comes with human actions and interactions. They struggle from insufficient situational awareness, treating the program to be more well-bounded than reality would suggest and using simplified models to understand the complexity inherent in execution. Best practices from project management literature were typically not derived from such environments and, worse, have fallen short on other large complex programs and projects.

Large complex programs are characterized by boundaries that change in response to changing environments (traditional PM theory limits communication across boundaries); emphasize coping with challenges and change (traditional PM theory restrains/limits managerial response to changes); go beyond uncertainty and require change in perspective (Agile PM helps deal with uncertainty); face a high level of unknown unknowns and unclear/incompatible stakeholder needs. They encourage and likely require innovativeness in execution which is beyond the mechanistic approach of traditional PM theory.

General Systems Theory and Key Characteristics

Systems theory represents a different way of seeing, thinking and acting.[2]

Systems are viewed as greater than the sum of their parts. A system’s holistic properties can never be completely known. Different perspectives will provide different views that may overlap and not be completely compatible. Complexity of systems may exist at multiple levels – component, sub-system, system and system of systems. Flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness provide resilience in complex systems and redundancy of information flows and critical resources are essential characteristics in well performing systems. Time must be managed to accommodate disruptions and disturbances and provide adequate time for the system to recover. Positive feedback loops may drive multi-finality while negative feedbacks aid equilibrium and stability. Systems methodologies are characterized as either hard or soft systems methodologies.

Hard systems methodologies sometimes referred to as operations research does not deal as effectively with complex human conflictual problems as does soft systems methodologies. The later consider the broader environment including human and sociological elements. Soft systems methodologies are often iterative, learning at each stage.

While systems may be considered to be closed or open, the focus in this paper is on open systems which are more analogous to large complex programs.

Large Complex Program Characteristics Align with General Systems Theory (GST)

Large complex programs and projects inhabit the open system world described by general systems theory. The adoption of a systems approach to the management of large complex programs carries with it a requirement to think strategically.

Shared concepts and best practices of large complex programs and projects and general systems theory include:

  • Life cycle approach
  • People-centric issues
    • Leadership
    • Stakeholder engagement and benefit clarification
    • Communication
    • Motivation and team building
    • Negotiation
  • Importance of processes
  • Focus on taming complexity
  • Clarity of purpose (SBO)

Systems tools that can aid in management of large complex programs and projects include:


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How to cite this paper: Prieto, R. (2020). Systems Nature of Large Complex Programs; PM World Journal, Vol IX, Issue VIII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/pmwj96-Aug2020-Prieto-Systems-Nature-of-Large-Complex-Programs.pdf



About the Author

Bob Prieto

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


 Bob Prieto is a senior executive effective in shaping and executing business strategy and a recognized leader within the infrastructure, engineering and construction industries. Currently Bob heads his own management consulting practice, Strategic Program Management LLC. He previously served as a senior vice president of Fluor, one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. He focuses on the development and delivery of large, complex projects worldwide and consults with owners across all market sectors in the development of programmatic delivery strategies. He is author of nine books including “Strategic Program Management”, “The Giga Factor: Program Management in the Engineering and Construction Industry”, “Application of Life Cycle Analysis in the Capital Assets Industry”, “Capital Efficiency: Pull All the Levers” and, most recently, “Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects” published by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) as well as over 700 other papers and presentations.

Bob is an Independent Member of the Shareholder Committee of Mott MacDonald. He is a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction, a Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America and member of several university departmental and campus advisory boards. Bob served until 2006 as a U.S. presidential appointee to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC), working with U.S. and Asia-Pacific business leaders to shape the framework for trade and economic growth. He had previously served as both as Chairman of the Engineering and Construction Governors of the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the infrastructure task force formed after September 11th by the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Previously, he served as Chairman at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) and a non-executive director of Cardno (ASX)

Bob can be contacted at rpstrategic@comcast.net.

To view other works by Bob Prieto, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/bob-prieto/


[1] See R. Prieto, Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects

[2] De Rosnay, Macroscope: A New World Scientific System, 1975