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Can project management learn anything from studies of failure in complex systems?

Lookup NU author(s): Chris Ivory, Dr Neil Alderman


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Over the past two decades, technology systems have evolved into highly complex tools. And the effort to develop each new generation involves increasingly complex risks that could-if the system fails-undermine an organization's operational stability. While studying this evolution, researchers have learned why such systems fail; they also discovered that organizations which practiced an interventionist approach to managing the complexity within these projects reduced their potential for project failure. This article references this research in examining three case studies on managing complex engineering projects, studies that show the organizational impact of using ongoing targeted interventions to prevent project failure. It first reviews the literature to explain why technology projects fail and outline which management approaches enable organizations to avoid failure, improve safety, manage complexity, resolve multi-nodal challenges, and integrate centralized project authority and interventions. It then analyzes the case studies, identifying the sources of complexity, detailing the benefits of using multi-nodality and local intervention, outlining the challenges in managing resources, and describing the structure of project interventions. It concludes by specifying the key issues in managing complex projects, the demands of working with complexity, and the practical value of using an interventionist approach as a project management tool. Includes illustrative matter and bibliographical references.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Ivory CJ, Alderman N

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Project Management Journal

Year: 2005

Volume: 36

Issue: 3

Pages: 5-16

ISSN (print): 8756-9728

ISSN (electronic): 1938-9507

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.