Decision Making in Complex Project Environments

Alaina Burden
How do you make decisions without all the facts, where challenges are less predictable and information is less reliable?

All we know is in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complicated, Ambiguous) world change is constant.

Let’s take a moment to explore contexts; two operating environments where leaders of project-based work are comfortable making decisions, and where they are struggling.

Complicated vs Complex

Complicated, or technical contexts, are easy to identify and can be solved by applying tried and tested solutions, where the traditional approach to project management and decision-making still applies. When we switch to a complex operating context, we move across a certainty/predictability chasm where cause and effect cannot be foreseen, and therefore, a different approach is required.

For example, a complicated context is flying a plane where the pilot must deal with several changing environmental factors to land the plane safely at the desired destination. But a complex setting in comparison is air traffic control that has been designed to continually adjust as conditions change to one another.

A highly skilled leader will be able to identify the context they are in, but also work to cross the chasm between the two, to bring something that is complex into a state where we can start to plan and use tried and tested knowledge from the past.

Making the Right Decisions

Let us consider why we make decisions. To get results and outcomes. To commit to a course of action. To affect future progress. But it will be difficult to achieve these outcomes if leaders aren’t taking the appropriate action for the right context. It’s important to;

1. Decide what context you are in

2. Apply your appropriate approach

3. Be mindful of “slowing down” decision-making

Adaptive Mindset

When working in a complicated operational context, the traditional approach to project management still applies because there are a medium-high certainty and predictability, multiple cause and effect relationships and a requirement for expert analysis and diagnosis which can have multiple right approaches/pathways to a solution.

So we can plan and anticipate, exchange structured information with defined interfaces, track progress against targets and identify issues, develop a hypothesis and solve problems (Project Management 101!).

The PSC Model

In complexity, the VUCA environment has a bias for action rather than making decisions.

Perceiving (P), Sensemaking (S) and Choreography (C) has the intentional methodology to slow our thinking down as opposed to jumping to bias or past action/reaction.

The skills of perceiving (SEE differently) helps leaders reframe situations with a beginner’s mindset to avoid biases and default thinking.

The skills of sensemaking (THINK differently) helps leader fully understand the systems they encounter and use adductive logic to find progression paths.

The skills of choreography (DO differently) help leaders navigate informal networks and build collectives to solve problems.

Project Management


Despite our best attempts, it is impossible for humans to be completely objective when perceiving a context as we suffer from bias from our pre-existing notions and default to what we know.

Leaders must proactively seek to see things differently to understand the complexity and uncover the latent needs of the organisation, customers and stakeholders. When dealing with constant change, the need to see the big picture and to frame and reframe what you see is one of the most important roles a leader must take on in perceiving.

Having a beginner’s mindset (like starting with a clean slate) allows us to leave our biases behind and let curiosity in. In turn, we can then start to see a bigger and often different picture.


Leaders need to see a system/issue in a holistic sense. Creating an integrated picture from multiple perspectives can help bring viability to the collective sense of the system at play. Working with others can improve decision quality by exploring alternatives and recognising where our thinking might be biased. Collaboration is the key to innovation where we can grow our ideas and stress test them with others.

Together leaders need to take adductive action and look for data and patterns that might contradict existing notions, ideas, and assumptions and then try to make sense of it to find progression paths forward that cuts through complexity.


With several ideas on how to move forward, leaders then need to take the most sound idea and find channels and vehicles that help the journey. Complex adaptive systems cannot be controlled and must be solved by networks of individuals who hold different vantage points to make collective sense of what is going on and take action to move forward.

This requires that leaders build and influence the collectives of individuals outside their sphere of control to nudge the complex adaptive system into the desired direction. It also requires leaders to have the confidence to take action to re-establish order, test and iterate as many actions as possible and make go/no go decisions ruthlessly.

A common derailment in either context is the desire to make a decision quickly. In both contexts taking the time to stay away from an action/reaction response, whether we have experienced the situation before (complicated), allows time to move away from an automatic and emotional response and come to a considered evaluation with logical or idyllic conclusions.

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