July 24, 2017

Complex Adaptive Systems: Resources, Constraints, Depletion (Scope & Complexity)

Traditional Definition

Traditionally in project management there are 3 constraints. Scope, Cost and Time. These all impact the quality of the end product.

When dealing with complex adaptive systems we need to break this down further and re-categorise these definitions. See below:

New Definition.


Resources are defined as the things you need to complete a task in a project. These are:

  • Capabilities: The tools, techniques and skills that you have available to complete a task.
    • Tools aka Technology: a thing used to complete a task i.e. any invention e.g. axe, chainsaw. The more advanced a technology, the less effort it takes to complete a task.
    • Techniques: a way of completing a task i.e. any method / approach e.g. swing an axe, slide a chainsaw. Different tools require different techniques.
    • Skills: the frameworks used to decide on the right tools and techniques to apply to a specific task. Skills can be broken down further into.
      • Ability: A person / organisations knowledge and experience with dealing with a type of task.  The more knowledge and experience you have with a type of task, the less effort it takes you to do the task.
        • Ability = Knowledge (of the tools and techniques available for a task) + Experience (with applying these tools and techniques to a task)
      • Attitude: A person / organisations feelings towards doing a type of task. The more knowledge and experience a person has with a type of task, the higher their tolerance for scope and complexity in a given task.
  • Time: The time available to complete the task.
  • Budget: The incentives available to spend on a task (both intrinsic and extrinsic). Usually money but also other extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.
    • Extrinsic Incentives: Money, Perks, Benefits, Awards, Status
    • Intrinsic Incentives: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose
      • Autonomy: The level of opportunity available in deciding how a task is completed 
      • Mastery: The level of opportunities available in getting better at completing a task
      • Purpose: The sense of fulfilment in completing a task and it’s impact on an individuals / organisations core beliefs 


Constraints are the levels of Resourcing (i.e Budget, Capacity and Time) you have available to use on tasks.


Resources are depleted by 2 things. The scope of a task and the complexity of a task. These can be broken down further into:

  • Scope: The Breadth and Depth of tasks.
  • Complexity: The Variety and Uncertainty of tasks.

Square of Despair:

Breadth, Depth, Variety and Uncertainty is what I refer to as the Square of Despair. If left unchecked they will drain resources faster than can be replenished. Projects fail or partially fail when this happens.

This is especially true of most information technology projects built at scale. These projects carry a lot of hidden scope and complexity. It is very important to first understand where this hidden scope and complexity is and then to remove / reduce it. Here is how to attack each.

Breadth and Depth

  1. Depth: Divide and Conquer – Break the task into smaller tasks and solve.
  2. Breadth: Consolidate and Eliminate – Group tasks that are the same together and solve once for all tasks.

Variety and Uncertainty

  1. Variety: Standardise – Make similar tasks the same
  2. Uncertainty: Hypothesis Testing – Test and find out what the hidden tasks are and what solutions are needed.

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