Ramez Hanafi


Masters in Major Programme Management




Fintech & Payments



By Ramez Hanafi

A Program Manager’s Guide to Understanding and Addressing System Complexity in Major Digital Payment Programs

Ask any group of Program Managers the question “What’s the hardest part of launching a major digital payment program?” and you’ll get answers related to complexity.

The expectations for the role are changing. Traditionally, Program Managers organise work, document, manage risk, and coordinate stakeholders. Then ask, “What should these leaders be doing?” First, they must take ownership for creating value and, ultimately, the program results. Doing so may involve a range of new responsibilities before the program begins, including working with stakeholders to build a rational business case. This critical function involves the Program Manager working with teams to take “an outside view” and using actual performance in a reference class of comparable projects (Flyvbjerg, 2006). This shift places the Program Manager as the CEO of these temporary organisations and forces them to focus on the system complexity throughout the program lifecycle.

Major digital payment programs are growing in relevance in the global economy. The motivation behind studying this phenomenon came from several factors. First, there is limited research on major digital transformation programs specifically aimed at scaling the adoption of digital money. For example, how does a Central Bank actively drive the adoption of a digital currency as a temporary organisation with a defined target? Second, the concept of a cashless society is an idea discussed by governments; however, the implications of system complexity are unclear on the performance of major programs implementing a large-scale change of this kind. Finally, given the trend of exploring new forms of digital currency such as crypto, there is a growing interest in understanding how a major program delivers these services.

What is system complexity in programs?

Tracing the definition of complexity is essential to understand its effects and address it within major programs. Baccarini (1996) proposed a definition of project complexity as “consisting of many varied interrelated parts and further operationalised in terms of differentiation and interdependency.” Williams (2005) elaborated on the concept by proposing project complexity as characterised by the dimensions of structure (i.e., size or number of elements and interdependency between them) and uncertainty (i.e., goals and means to achieving them). The critical distinction program complexity theorists established was that there is no best way to organise, lead, or make decisions.

Why is this important for program managers?

By raising awareness of these types of programs, managers are better able to tackle the challenges in bringing payment products to market. In addition, the approach from the study provides a systematic way for managers to think through and solve specific types of obstacles expected to surface while leading programs with inherit characteristics. Historically, much of the literature on program complexity has been on cases in the construction industry and less on information technology, let alone specifically on payments. Most popular literature on the management of projects and the creation of systems remains relatively nascent and largely theoretical.

To address this, we used Shenhar and Dvir’s (1995) work and the NCTP Diamond Model as the framework to distinguish between project type and its strategic and managerial challenges. Most studies assume all projects consist of a universal set of functions and activities. Using the NCTP model to organize our thinking, program managers can better explore the differences in these specific programs and build contingencies. The proposition from Shenhar and Dvir is that “project management differs with the specific kind of project and management attitudes and practices must be adapted to the project type.”

The NCTP model described below in Figure 1 categorises projects across an axes at the moment of project initiation, helping to organise a program managers approach to the hierarchal ladder of systems and subsystems. This view separates “interdependence” and “uncertainty” when managing the dimensions of system complexity in programs. Using the NCTP model, we defined digital payment programs as an array, (i.e., system of systems) and consequently structured our findings and management approach.

Digital payment programs work with a broad network of stakeholders to deliver interoperable solutions. Consequently, NCTP’s focus on complexity arising from the interdependence across the network of systems provided clarity when applying the framework to this relatively new domain of major program literature. The NCTP was chosen instead of other potential system complexity frameworks for these reasons.

Going Cashless with the Oystercard

A case study of a complex digital payment program applied to the NCTP Diamond Model

In the late 1990s, London set out to transform payments and ticketing systems. The LT Prestige program (now renamed Oystercard) aimed to increase the coverage of the smart ticking infrastructure and the integration of ticketing on public transport in London. The program was one of the early phases of a more comprehensive smart ticketing programs across England. The program benefits set out to (1) make ticketing arrangements better for passengers by encouraging a shift to public transport and (2) make more efficient use of existing transport networks and infrastructure. In addition, the Oystercards were designed to allow frictionless payment using a “Tap and Go” customer experience to enable quick pass-through. 

NCTP Diamond Model applied to a digital payment program

Figure 1: NCTP Diamond Model applied to a digital payment program


Evaluating the LT Prestige program against the NCTP model described it with the characteristics of an Array along the Complexity axes. Let’s review the approach for the LT Prestige and its unique characteristics to understand the relevance for program managers addressing these complexities in similar major payment programs.

First, in the early phases, an open, flexible, and broad network of stakeholders were invited to participate in the planning for the new ticketing program. These included specialists from the different regulatory, privacy, and financial inclusion domains to ensure the feature and product designs accounted for risks. The consortium of public organisations provided requirements for the program team to build into the design specifications. 

Second, once the planning and design phase was complete, the program moved into a highly formal and structured project management discipline, slightly altering the program designs.

Third, the program shifted into what can be described as a “small and controlled start” with a “learn and adapt” approach to gradually evolve and grow. An example of this included consciously starting with a closed-loop payments network, limited to London, then evolving into a globally interoperable open-loop contactless payment network, expanded across the UK. The program adopted a phased approach, first with a closed-loop ticketing system to address the gradual adoption and learning curve by the network of users. Then, working closely with the payment networks and remaining commercially minded, the program gradually scaled adoption into contactless payment form-factors and signed licensing deals with New York City, New South Wales, and Boston. 

These subtle yet notable practices allowed the program to evolve, respond, and scale over time. These elements and lessons are not unique to delivering successful major digital payment programs, as we will further explore in the research from the Oxford study.

What are the findings of the Oxford study?

The study aims to build to the body of knowledge in Major Program Management through research from a sample of ten executives from the payment industry. The research set out to answer two questions. First, what are the implications of system complexity issues in major programs involving the adoption of digital money? And second, what is the management approach to addressing system complexity in these types of programs?  Below is a summary of the research highlights.

Implications: Delays, Cost Overrun, and Benefit Shortfall

It was evident from the findings that digital payment programs experience time delays, cost overrun, and benefit shortfalls because of system complexity. There were three key factors contributing to these implications.

Legal, compliance, tax, and regulatory requirements. When we asked participants in the study to describe the complexity in these programs and examples of events that may have impacted timelines, costs, and planned benefits, nine out of ten respondents mentioned legal, compliance, tax, and regulatory requirements as major contributing factors. Further questioning led select respondents to describe the challenges of delivering digital solutions as highly dependent on interrelations with diverse stakeholders – both internal and external. Respondents would interchangeably list known unknowns of working with different parties as one of the biggest threats to delivering programs to plan (Taleb, 2010).

Optimistic and noisy business case. Respondents described an “inaccurate”, “aggressive” or “optimistic” business case contributing to these programs failing to deliver on target. When asked to explain how the goals were defined, eight out of ten respondents described “questionable” practices in determining program success. As a result, respondents described top-down goals and failing to use reliable forecast tools as a reference class to account for the different types of bias (Flyvbjerg et al., 2018).

Socio-political agendas by stakeholders. Given the number of stakeholders and a high degree of interdependence across the network of systems, six out of ten respondents described how these dynamics created ongoing delays and a threat of fundamental changes to the original product design.

Five approaches to managing system complexity in digital payment programs

Moreover, the research aimed to understand the management practices payment experts took to reduce the implications of system complexity. Consequently, the executives revealed five main approaches from the study. These broadly highlighted consistencies with the literature on system complexity, the NCTP model, and heuristics known to me as an industry expert of digital payment programs. Here is a summary of them.

Build teams of subject matter experts.  Keeping programs on course depends on solving obstacles as they arise by critical functional groups, including legal, compliance, accounting, and tax. For payment programs, new technologies are often less understood or open to change within newly emerging regulatory frameworks. For example, one respondent in the study highlighted the criticality of having teams of legal payment experts embedded from the conceptual phases of the program design to respond to black-swan events, described as “typically turning projects sideways”. Another respondent said, “Ah, my legal business partner was on ‘speed-dial’ on projects I’ve seen. I can’t take a turn without understanding what lies ahead on the latest interpretation of the regulations.”

Establish ownership through clear roles and responsibilities. Successful programs in the study described clear ownership over tasks and decisions through detailed roles and responsibility matrixes for the teams. For example, one respondent noted, “categorizing the type of decision (i.e., reversible or non-reversible) and holding accountability to the ultimate decision-maker is often more important than the decision in of itself.” Another respondent shared an approach to a new program related to an EU payment regulation saying, “It was important that the new team be set up for success. So we established a dedicated team entirely focused on delivering the program and supporting the regulators refining the rules. This was a huge undertaking, and we had to make sure that it had senior leadership support.”

Utilise collaborative project management platforms. Regardless of time or place, well-designed platforms empowered teams to work smarter and better collaborate. In addition, these platforms served to create social networks and transparency amongst teams on program updates, tasks owners and milestones, risks, and outcomes of critical decisions. “The nature of payment projects is that they’re across borders and time zones. To keep tasks moving, smart project management systems help to ‘pass the baton’ when one area is ending their day, and another is starting.” Or, as another respondent described, “No question, technology plays a big role in keeping everyone aligned. Our projects involve working with the payment networks, acquirers, issuing banks, merchants, and retailers. Trying to keep everyone aligned without some formal process and system would be a nightmare.”

Foster a commercially (and customer) obsessed culture. The study’s thriving digital payment programs led with a customer problem and viewed regulatory rules as an obstacle to be solved as part of the design. So in the early stages, teams in some of the programs studied worked backwards from the customer pain point and built commercially savvy solutions for all parties. “Look at the example of Apple Pay: They stayed commercially oriented and designed one of the best customer experiences. The program is obsessed with making it easy to pay with your phone and forces all parties in the ecosystem to invent to make it work, and it continues to scale.” “I think it’s terrific having commercially focused companies like the payment networks at the helm; otherwise, we would never be able to work through all the rules coming into force by the regulators. The only way to deliver innovative ideas to move money is if the laws stay where they belong, and the inventors stay elsewhere. You can’t expect to do both well.”

Build small, modular programs and scale-up, fast. The study found big, lofty, and overly ambitious payment projects often fail. Respondents described the importance of keeping the program small, modular, and interoperable early.  This allowed learning to form before moving quickly to expand wider user adoption of the payment services. “The definition of a major program in payments is an oxymoron of sorts. To create a successful global payment program, it’s about starting small and thinking long-term.” “In our programs, there is a conscious shift away from building MVPs to what we call an MLP. That is a most viable product to a most lovable one. It may sound like semantics, but it’s not; it’s a change in mindset. A focus on building the simplest version of a feature that customers will love instead of the simplest version of what engineering can build. Very different when you’re trying to create a solution that will scale.”

One respondent from the study rightfully described, “As Napster was to music in the early days of streaming, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies will be to payments.” So, it’s just a matter of time before the regulations, commercial models, and the user experience align to create a cosmic shift in digital money as we know it today. As noted, much of the academic research within major programs have studied traditional major projects’ behaviour (i.e., construction). Although the investment and scale are much more subtle, the impact of these types of digital transformation programs is not.  A “cashless society” is increasingly becoming a reality in certain parts of the world – accelerated in part by the SARS-Co-V-2 (Covid-19) pandemic. So far, we’ve used existing frameworks to structure our thinking regarding managing these types of complex programs. Given the small sample size, the study provides practitioners with initial insights into the implications of system complexity and essential considerations when managing complexity arising from interdependence and uncertainty. We recognise the results of the study as suggestive. However, given the impact these programs have on global economies and individuals and limited access to the inner workings of these highly confidential payment programs, the study’s findings provide initial insights worthy of further exploration and consideration.


Baccarini, D., 1996. The concept of project complexity—a review. Int. J. Proj. Manag. 14, 201–204.

Flyvbjerg, B., 2006. From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right. Proj. Manag. J. 37, 5–15.

Flyvbjerg, B., Ansar, A., Budzier, A., Buhl, S., Cantarelli, C., Garbuio, M., Glenting, C., Holm, M.S., Lovallo, D., Lunn, D., Molin, E., Rønnest, A., Stewart, A., van Wee, B., 2018. Five things you should know about cost overrun. Transp. Res. Part Policy Pract. 118, 174–190.

Shenhar, A.J., Dvir, D., 1995. Managing technology projects: a contingent exploratory approach, in: Proceedings of the Twenty-Eighth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Vol.3. Presented at the Twenty-Eighth Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEE Comput. Soc. Press, Wailea, HI, USA, pp. 494–503.

Taleb, N.N., 2010. The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2nd ed. ed. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York.

Williams, T., 2005. Assessing and moving on from the dominant project management discourse in the light of project overruns. IEEE Trans. Eng. Manag. 52, 497–508.

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