During the past decade, there has been an increasing tendency to draw attention to the particular challenges posed by complex projects. At the same time, complexity in and of projects has emerged as a theme for discussion and debate in response to growing concern about the dominance of various versions of control theory, operations research, systems theory, and instrumentalism in studies of projects, project management, and project settings in general. Research and critique have questioned the relevance of the traditional project management research to the challenges experienced in contemporary project environments at three levels: (1) discrepancy between “project management best practice” recommendations and what is really being enacted in practice; (2) observations of paradoxical, unintended consequences in practice that emerge from following the project management prescriptions in “the book”; and (3) the need for alternative theoretical conceptualizations and thinking about projects and project complexity in practice.
This paper reports on research, undertaken with support from the Project Management Institute, that aims to contribute to the theoretical basis of the field of project management, by examining the landscape of “complexity theory” and illuminating those developments within it that have high relevance to project management, notably the concept of “complex responsive processes of relating in organizations” (CRPR). In practical terms, this research aims to propose and encourage a critical but constructive way of explaining, debating, and deliberating on project management and project performance issues leading to a wider awareness, knowledge, and development of skills and competencies that match the actuality and complexity of projects as experienced by practitioners in contemporary organizations. CRPR is used as a theoretical lens for understanding the lived experience of project teams, including executive sponsors, project managers, and project team members through examination of interviews with more than 70 participants in 27 projects conducted on three continents.