Project uncertainty: a phrase often mentioned but is it truly understood? The APM defines uncertainty as “A state of incomplete knowledge about a proposition. Usually associated with risks, both threats and opportunities.” Speaking from personal experience as a Project Manager on major Infrastructure projects and programmes, this feels very familiar.
I’m sure colleagues across the project management profession will have similar experiences, be it in the projects you manage, environments you operate in, or your day to day lives.
As a profession, it’s often the case that the projects we manage are highly complex and are delivered in environments where certainty is a rare commodity. The lack of certainty can be due to a variety of political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal factors and has been even more prominent in recent years with Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, rising levels of inflation and political uncertainty. So how do you as a Project Manager navigate your project through uncertain times?
In my view there are some key steps that can be followed:
1. Get comfortable with uncertainty
Project uncertainty doesn’t have a correlation to project complexity and for that reason it’s often the case that the only certainty is that some degree of uncertainty will exist in the project environment. Therefore, we must be comfortable with operating and making decisions where all possibilities are not always clear. When looking to provide some balance, some may plan for all matter of events, also known as contingency planning. This can be extended to applying VUCA thinking to their project leadership, which is a way of understanding and addressing the rapidly changing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of projects. Being able to react to uncertainty in an agile, but well-structured way, will give your project team confidence that the project is still taking the right steps to deliver as planned.
2. Set your ‘North Star’ and the guiding principles that get you there
A project is a unique endeavour, with a start and end date. That means we have a role in keeping the project on the path towards it’s ‘North Star’ and achieving the ultimate project outcomes and objectives despite the uncertainty that may come along the way. Creating a simple and well understood set of guiding principles such as ‘reuse rather than rebuild in terms of materials’ is a useful step and helps in making key decisions to move the project forward where ambiguity may exist.
3. Understand your sphere of control and influence
We must be willing to accept that there are things beyond our sphere of control. The recent political decision on HS2 is one such example, and as a project manager you need to be set up to react accordingly when such decisions are made. Having accepted that, we should focus on what we can control, and manage these elements using tools and techniques we know and feel comfortable with e.g., a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and strengths) analysis. Finally, it’s important to recognise that what we cannot control we may be able to influence, such as decisions made within a company delivering the project and build engagement with these decision makers into your stakeholder engagement.
4. Uncertainty doesn’t need to mean negativity
I’m sure I speak for many project managers when I say that uncertainty often has negative connotations, similar to the way we perceive risks and risk management. However, to strive for success in a project, we should aim to create opportunity out of uncertainty. Successful project managers will set up projects in such a way that they have planned for positive impacts and are able to recognise the benefits or efficiency that may be forthcoming as a result.
We should also be mindful to ward off too much optimism bias! A personal example of creating opportunity out of uncertainty was during the pandemic where I was able to accelerate highways construction projects, leveraging the quieter environment and reduced road traffic as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic to complete works earlier than initially planned.
5. Implement processes for tracking and managing
As with most things in project management, I find applying the process of plan, assess, review and implement can be critical in managing projects through uncertain and volatile times.
What helps me is recording uncertainties that may impact your project, planning for how they could be addressed and continually reviewing them throughout the project lifecycle.
It can also be worth exploring any existing frameworks and principles that deal with uncertainty to support you such as suites of contracts, i.e., NEC (New Engineering Contract) in the case of construction project, which many projects will often turn in times of turbulence or uncertainty.
The reality is that projects will more than likely operate in an environment of uncertainty, and it’s something that makes the profession challenging but rewarding in equal measure.
As a project community we must embrace this and recognise just because uncertainty exists, it doesn’t mean you cannot be prepared for several outcomes. I also wonder if there is more we can do to recognise that rising out of the ashes of uncertainty is the phoenix of opportunity — opportunities that, as a profession, we are best placed to plan for.
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