Making Peace With Project Uncertainty

Glenn Mauney is a guest contributor on the subject of project management. Glenn has more than 25 years experience with projects of all shapes and sizes. He has worked on projects ranging from drafting energy policy legislation to updating a management training program to a restaurant start-up to heading up academic accreditation. He has also served as a U.S. Navy Officer, advised state government on energy policy, and his work has been published in the Charlotte Observer and Asheville Citizen Times.

Projects, by their very nature, will have a decent amount of uncertainty and risk. A good project manager can do her best to put together a great team, collaborate and communicate with all the stakeholders, and follow all the best practices yet still not be able to avoid or mitigate all risk and uncertainty. Thinking about this a bit more finds me asking a couple of questions. Are risk and uncertainty synonymous? Even if you could, would you want to remove all risk or uncertainty?

I recently had the good fortune to listen in on a webinar discussing project uncertainty and risk, it was titled, The Silver Linings of Project Uncertainties. The speaker was Dr. Thomas G. Lechler, PhD, and Associate Professor at the Howe School, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Dr. Lechler posits that uncertainty does not equal risk, nor is uncertainty a risk to be avoided. To the contrary, he believes uncertainty presents an opportunity to be exploited.

A quick search shows that most definitions describe risk as being not such a good thing, “situation involving exposure to danger.” Or “the possibility that something bad or unpleasant will happen.” But, taking a look at the PMBOK (PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge) you find risk defined as, “an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on one or more project objectives.” That was a positive or negative effect. So, it doesn’t look like risk is necessarily a bad thing all the time after all. But, as a project manager, how do you find the silver lining in project uncertainty and use it to your advantage?

To be in a position to exploit project uncertainty to your advantage, you must first have gotten the project’s basics right. Is it properly chartered? Have all stakeholders been identified? Did you use the Triple Constraints when determining deliverables, schedule, and budget? Do you have clear, well-defined objectives? In short, are you following the project management processes? Only after you have a solid plan will you be in a position to protect the project from or take advantage of project uncertainty.

Dr. Lechler points out that in the traditional view, the focus is on the baseline. The objectives are determined up front and agreed upon. When some risk or uncertainty comes up that threatens this baseline, the project manager works to keep that uncertainty from changing the original plan and it’s value proposition. There is certainly nothing wrong with and is a primary responsibility of the project manager to keep the team focused on meeting project deliverables.

However, while keeping a wary eye out for scope creep, there can be great value in analyzing project uncertainties to see if there is value to be gained. If you see uncertainty as an opportunity to enhance the project’s value and as OK, you will likely cause revisions to the project’s baseline. This isn’t necessarily bad. Encountering a great deal of uncertainty could mean it’s time to take a second look at the deliverables and project plan. Uncertainty in a project could also be a sign of missed opportunity to bring value to the project. Thorough analysis of the uncertainty will often reveal how the project needs to be changed to meet project deliverables and achieve the greatest value.

“Not all uncertainties are linked to opportunity. But, all opportunities are linked to uncertainty.”

Thinking back on Dr. Lechler’s thesis that uncertainty does not equal risk, I’d have to agree. It is a step outside the norm, but worth opening your project manager playbook to. A commander from my time as a U.S. Navy Officer taught me, “If you have a plan, you cannot be defeated. As long as you can change your plan.” I think that goes along with the idea here and a quote from Dr. Lechler, “Not all uncertainties are linked to opportunity. But all opportunities are linked to uncertainty.” You must have properly defined project objectives, but knowing that uncertainty is inevitable, be ready and nimble enough to take advantage of that inevitability to enhance project value.

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