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Understand, reduce, respond: project complexity management theory and practice

Harvey Maylor (Said Business School, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK)
Neil Turner (International Centre for Programme Management, Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University, Cranfield, UK)

International Journal of Operations & Production Management

ISSN: 0144-3577

Article publication date: 7 August 2017



The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of complexity and its management from an OM perspective, building on and extending the systematic literature review published in this journal in 2011, and provide a foundation for exploring the interactions between complexities and responses.


The paper takes a subjective view of complexity, focusing on the “lived experience” of managers. It takes an updated systematic literature review, and demonstrates the comprehensiveness of a framework to classify complexities of projects. It reports the findings from 43 workshops with over 1,100 managers.


First, the complexity framework is effective in aiding understanding. Second, and somewhat unexpectedly, managers were able to identify strategies to reduce the majority of complexities that they faced. Third, the workshops identified a typology of responses to residual complexities.

Research limitations/implications

The framework has demonstrated its utility, and a gap in understanding emergent complexities is identified. The framework further presents the opportunity to explore the recursive nature of complexity and response.

Practical implications

This paper provides a framework that is both comprehensive and comprehensible. The authors demonstrate that complexities can be reduced and provide a means to assess responses to residual complexities, including potentially matching managers to projects.


This work extends the previous systematic review combined with extensive empirical data to generate findings that are having impact in practice, and have the potential to strengthen a relatively neglected area within OM. A research agenda is suggested to support this.



Maylor, H. and Turner, N. (2017), "Understand, reduce, respond: project complexity management theory and practice", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 37 No. 8, pp. 1076-1093.



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