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2.4: Darnall-Preston Complexity Index Structure

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Describe each of the external attributes that contribute to project complexity.
    2. Describe each of the internal attributes that contribute to project complexity.
    3. Describe each of the technological attributes that contribute to project complexity.
    4. Describe each of the environmental attributes that contribute to project complexity.

    The Darnall-Preston Complexity Index (DPCI™) is designed to develop a project profile that reflects different aspects of the project that will influence the approach to leading and executing the project. The DPCI is built on four categories of attributes:

    1. External. Environmental attributes that are in existence at the beginning of the project, such as size, duration, and available resources
    2. Internal. Clarity of project objectives, the clarity of scope, the organizational complexity, and stakeholder agreement
    3. Technological. Newness of the technology and familiarity of team members with the technology
    4. Environmental. Legal, cultural, political, and ecological

    The DPCI was developed around four assumptions:

    1. All projects are unique.
    2. Projects have common characteristics.
    3. These characteristics can be grouped together to create a project profile.
    4. There is an optimum execution approach for each project profile and therefore an optimum set of skills and experience for the project manager and execution team.

    External Attributes

    The external attributes include those issues that are typically established early in the project definition phase and are usually outside the direct control of the project management team. The project size can be a product of the dollars needed to execute the project or project cost. The cost of the project is estimated during the conceptual phase of the project. At the time the project is authorized, the cost or size of the project is established. The duration or time allocated to complete the project and the resources available are also attributes that are established when the project is authorized.


    Project size is a relative concept. How do we decide if something is large or small? A 150-pound person is big if the person is ten years old. A 150-pound person is small if the person is a professional football lineman. The frame of reference provides the context in which size is determined.

    The size of a project is also relative. A $250 million oil refinery expansion is a relatively small project in an industry where billion dollar projects are common. A $250 million pharmaceutical development project or software development project would be considered a large project. The size of a project is determined by the context of the industry and the experience of the team executing the project.

    Within the construction industry, firms usually specialize in projects that fall within a defined range. Small firms usually execute small projects and large firms usually execute larger projects. There is a size range for which the company experience, management skills, tools, and work processes are primarily designed. This size range or comfort zone exists for both the company and the members of the project team executing the project.

    When a project team executes a project outside their comfort zone, stress is placed on both the tools and project team. When a project is larger than the comfort zone of a company, stresses are placed on the ability to provide experience and appropriate work processes, and the results are typically cost overruns and schedule delays. To mitigate this stress, some companies will divide large projects into smaller projects and execute the smaller projects with separate dedicated staff and resources. The key to success then becomes the coordination of the small projects to behave as if they are one large project.

    Copper Mining in Argentina

    One example of this process was a copper mining project in Argentina. The comfort zone of the company was projects ranging from $150 million to $500 million. Projects over $500 million were divided into smaller projects. The mining project was estimated to cost a little over $1 billion and the project was divided into three projects, each with a project manager and leadership team. Although the projects shared some resources and reported to an oversight project manager, each project developed a separate execution plan that included a budget and schedule.

    When a company is executing a project that is much smaller than the company norm, resources are often misused and inappropriate work processes are utilized. The result often increases the project costs. Some companies with a history of executing large projects have set up a small project group to execute smaller projects. These groups establish a different culture, develop appropriate work processes, and use tools designed to execute smaller projects.

    The more the project size is outside the comfort zone of the project, the more stress is created for the project. This is true on both ends of the spectrum. Both smaller and larger projects that fall outside the comfort zone of the project management team will create stress for the project. New skills, tools, and processes will need to be developed to manage the project, and this activity will absorb management time and energy. The higher the stress level created by executing a project outside the comfort zone of the organization, the greater the impact on the complexity level of the project.


    The duration of a project is often set by the parent organization that charters the project with a deadline that reflects the business purpose of the project. The following are examples of projects with end dates that are established to meet the organization’s business purpose:

    • A new software program for a university to be implemented in time for registering students in the fall
    • A new product to be introduced to the marketplace at the industry’s major conference
    • A new high school to be constructed and open next fall

    The project team also estimates the duration of the project and establishes a project end date based on normal work (e.g., forty hours per week) and the availability of resources.

    Sometimes the normal time needed to complete a project is longer than the time available.

    Super Bowl Hotel Space

    The investors in a planned hotel start booking rooms for an upcoming Super Bowl weekend a year before the hotel is finished. This is six weeks ahead of the time estimated to build and open the hotel. People will be working overtime, suppliers will be paid a bonus to supply materials early, and management is meeting with city officials to expedite permitting issues. A new project schedule is developed based on these changes to the execution approach, and now the project schedule has zero float.

    The result of this six-week compression to the project schedule is additional stress on the project. Significant management time and energy will be invested in tracking and managing schedule issues. Every issue that arises will need to be resolved quickly and involve the project’s senior manager to assure the project schedule does not slip. This additional stress increases the overall project complexity.

    Resource Availability

    Projects require both human and tangible resources. The project requires people with the right experience, knowledge, and skills to accomplish the assigned tasks. Construction projects typically require resources such as bricks and cranes. Some projects require specialized subcontractors with skills not found within the project team. Each of these resources required by the project will be needed at the point in the project schedule when the materials or skills are required. When these resources are scarce or not available, additional management time and energy is needed.

    Boeing Dreamliner

    In 2003, Boeing announced the development of the new 787 Dreamliner Airplane. The airframe for the new airplane was a new composite material. During the same period that Boeing was beginning construction of the new manufacturing facility, other new planes were announced, and the Air Force increased its demand for people with airplane manufacturing and maintenance experience. A project was chartered to train the people the new plant would need to manufacture the Boeing Dreamliner. The project manager found that the people with the skills and knowledge needed to develop the curriculum and train the workers were in short supply. In addition to the lack of skilled trainers, the materials needed for the workers to train on were also scarce. The project manager dedicated significant time and energy developing the resources the project needed.

    When resources needed to execute the project are not readily available, the project leadership dedicates more management time and energy to acquiring the resources or finding innovative solutions to accomplish the project goals without the needed resources or with creative alternative solutions. The more time and energy the management team must dedicate to searching for resources or alternatives, the more stress on the project. The more scarce and more important the resources, the more stress that is placed on the project.