In Project Management

How much uncertainty can we take?We live in a world where uncertainty is becoming the norm. Few would now assert with any confidence that they can predict what the future will bring, and we see increasing evidence that things are changing faster – daily, hour by hour even – invalidating any baselines against which we were about to start planning.

Was it really such a short time ago that we felt on firmer ground? How come we were so sure of ourselves?

In traditional project management, we used to feel there were more knowns than unknowns. As a result we were happy to have a discrete project management discipline called ‘risk’. We accepted this actually meant ‘uncertainties’ and that this also included positive opportunities as well as potential problems.  But the point is we really felt we had a handle on it. We felt on firm ground with our project and were happy to confirm to stakeholders that we understood what the end result would look like (in detail) and that could clearly map the path from start to finish.

And the uncertainties?

Well, with a bit of thought, we ‘knew’ about those too, and we could list them in a ‘register’ and work to mitigate them.

Somehow today, I don’t think many of us feel we have the same level of control.

So what changed?

In the world of post-traditional project management (I think this term is useful because it recognises that things have changed, and that what used to work may no longer do so), we are up against new challenges. We live in an age of transformation – it’s all around us, and we find it increasingly difficult to identify a status quo. One change leads to another, leads to another….. Result? Constant state of flux.

So when we try and describe the end goal, it gets a bit difficult. The goal posts keep moving – this is something we used to complain about, but increasingly we are forced to accept that it’s inevitable and we have to find a way to live with it. Simply look at how our own expectations have changed when it comes to searching the internet, digital marketing and social media. Change on any project is no longer a risk, it’s a reality, and we have to find a way to perform and achieve in that context.

How do we do that when we’re surrounded by so much uncertainty?

Clearly we can’t do it ‘the old way’ any more, where we used our past experience to pin down the end result and knew exactly what that was (how it looked, smelt, and functioned). This isn’t as effective anymore because things are changing so fast that what worked last time may not work again!

Brains aren’t good with uncertainty. Our brains haven’t actually evolved as fast as everything around us, they’re hard-wired to check constantly for danger and threat, and so they tend to spot the negatives first. So we have to consciously prevent them going into this ‘threat’ response, to stop ourselves feeling completely overwhelmed, using up brain energy and preventing us thinking clearly. The challenge is to control uncertainty in a way that allows us to respond to change, and be able to innovate and be creative.

AgilePM offers the opportunity to develop iteratively and incrementally, adapting as the context changes around us. It’s not all uncertainty though, as this framework insists that firm foundations for a project are set before iterative development begins. From that point, Agile’s evolutionary development cycles allow us to ‘test’ far more than in the old world, reducing risk and uncertainty through empirical trial, communication, collaboration and iteration.

Uncertainty is here to stay – change is now ‘business-as-usual’ and we need to find ways to make decisions based on today’s conditions rather than ‘what we did last time’. AgilePM could be the key.

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