The Journey towards Profound Simplicity:


How to Effectively Navigate Complexity

in Projects [1]



By Lavagnon Ika

Professor of Project Management
Founding Director, Major Projects Observatory
Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


Complexity is a fact of life and projects”. “There is no escape. Think about the coronavirus pandemic and how it has upended our lives. Who would think that, even after more than one year, we’ll still be struggling with this invisible, tiny but so powerful virus? So, you’d understand that complexity is part and parcel of projects, which are akin to a bet on the future.” – Lavagnon Ika (see PMR, 2021) Interview with Lavagnon Ika – PM World Journal

As it unfolds, policy-makers all over the world have recognized the complexity of the delivery of “Operation Warp Speed” – a portfolio of vaccine development projects – (Winch et al., 2021) Operation Warp Speed: Projects responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – ScienceDirect and the subsequent vaccination rollout program, two major initiatives to deal with the coronavirus pandemic (Ika & Paché, 2021). Mass Vaccination: The Battle Will Not Be Easily Won (uottawa.ca)

Other non-pandemic projects are prone to high complexity. For example, the Big Dig highway project in Boston, Massachusetts, was one of the largest and most expensive and complex infrastructure projects in US history. Over the 15 years of construction and notwithstanding best practices and innovative tools to mitigate risk and control costs, the project went from a budget of $2.6 billion to a final cost of $15 billion. According to close observers such as the risk manager of the project, this project incurred significant blowouts due to complexity (Greiman, 2010). The Big Dig: Learning from a Mega Project | APPEL Knowledge Services (nasa.gov)

While failure to understand complexity tends to lead to failure in projects, we still do not know what makes a project complex and what to do about such a problem in practice. Even the US-based Project Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®), which has been largely silent over the years, now heralds “complexity” as one of its “project delivery principles” in its latest version (PMI, 2021). Standards and Guides Projects | Project Management Institute (pmi.org)

If complexity remains a challenge in the delivery of major projects, how do we deal with it in practice to help project funders and managers deliver more success?

The central idea of this article

This article suggests that our understanding of project complexity has moved from “superficial simplicity” to “confusing simplicity”, but the road to “profound simplicity” is still long (see Table 1). Indeed, understanding, it has been suggested, goes through three stages. In the first stage, people tend to settle for convenient and apparently solid but deceiving explanations (superficial simplicity). Soon, people realize things are not so simple and when they start working out more nuanced explanations, confusion emerges (confusing simplicity) and thus initial simplifications then appear superficial. But as people come up with excessively complex ideas and solutions, weigh in assumptions, conduct experimentations and entertain doubts, such confusing explanations will hopefully pave the way for the emergence of “wisdom” in the form of deep, tested and seasoned explanations (profound simplicity) (Schutz, 1979).


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Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally published in PM Review (China). It is republished here with the author’s permission.

How to cite this paper: Ika, L. (2022). The Journey towards Profound Simplicity: How to Effectively Navigate Complexity in Projects; originally published in PM Review in China, republished in the PM World Journal, Vol. XI, Issue VI, June. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/pmwj118-Jun2022-Ika-journey-towards-profound-simplicity.pdf

About the Author

Lavagnon Ika, PhD

Ontario, Canada



 Lavagnon Ika, MSc, PhD is Professor of Project Management and Founding Director of the Observatory of Major Projects at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. For the past 20 years, he has taught project management around the world. He is an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Project Management, a member of the Academic Boards of the international project management associations PMI and IPMA. Professor Ika’s research has been published in prestigious outlets such as World Development, IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Production Planning and Control, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, International Journal of Project Management, Project Management Journal and Harvard Business Review France. His work has earned him three Emerald Publishing House Awards of Excellence (Best Reviewer Award in 2018, Outstanding Paper in 2017 and Highly Commended Paper Award in 2011), as well as three IPMA Global Awards of Excellence (Research Award in 2017 and 2022 and Contribution of a Young Researcher Award in 2012). He was awarded the Telfer Innovative Researcher Award in 2017 and the Telfer Established Researcher Award in 2021. Several of his articles have received praise from practitioners. Prof Ika can be contacted at ika@telfer.uottawa.ca

[1] We would like to acknowledge the insightful comments of Professors Stephane Tywoniak, Jeff K. Pinto, and Peter E.D. Love who had helped improve this article.