Give up the notion of stability and certainty and accept change and complexity as givens.

Project management best practices, supported by the right tools, and applied in a way that matches the unique needs of your organization and project environment, are the means to the end of managing VUCA - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.


VUCA is a term that was introduced in the U.S. military to describe the post-Cold War world we are living in. The term has been in use in the realm of strategic leadership in all sorts of organizations since the late 1990s and is emerging in the project management world. Of course, VUCA has always been there in PM, it is just getting more intense and now, it has a name.

VUCA represents a challenge. Recognizing VUCA as a reality makes it necessary to give up any sense of certainty, except the certainty that there will be change and uncertainty and that complexity is increasing.

Last month, I wrote about managing ambiguity. This article steps back from that single aspect of VUCA to learn what to do when the four factors converge. In future articles we will focus in on the other factors (Volatility, uncertainty and complexity).

Convergence and Process Perspective

In the performance of projects there is no real separation of the individual elements of VUCA from one another and from all the other aspects of the dynamic interplay of people, objectives, cultural norms, business processes, policies, and all the rest of the factors that influence projects. We separate them so that we can address each while remembering its relationship to the overall process.

In a dynamic process, volatility and complexity converge to influence uncertainty, and ambiguity. In turn, ambiguity and uncertainty influence volatility and complexity. Volatility and complexity influence and are influenced by environmental factors, personalities, etc.

It is a project managers' responsibility to take a process oriented and systems-oriented perspective and to make sure that all stakeholders understand the fluid nature of their organizations and projects. The project manager must ensure that there is awareness and acceptance of VUCA.

A Process Perspective recognizes that all outcomes are the result of a process – a set of steps and interactions among people and their tools and environment. That process is taking place in a system - a set of interacting people, places and things. Systems exist within and interact with other systems.

In a system any change anywhere may have an effect anywhere else. The more complex the system, the greater the uncertainty about how a change may affect it.

Example: Portfolio Management

To take this from the theoretical to the practical, let's take portfolio management as an example. The system in this case is an organization, made up of units like departments and divisions. Each of these is also a system with processes, procedures, projects, people and all sorts of other things.

The organization has a portfolio of currently active projects, pending projects and yet to be identified projects to accomplish a variety of objectives and obtain benefits. The organization also has operational activities. Some projects are initiated by and are for the benefit of a single department while others cross organizational boundaries. Projects are performed by and use resources – people, computing environments, equipment and facilities. The same resources are often needed by multiple projects and operational activities; there is competition for limited resources.

At a point in time, there is a portfolio-level plan that identifies projects, and their resource needs, allocates resources establishes a schedule of when projects will begin and end.

Volatility appears as the organization's leaders add new projects or re-prioritize old ones as the executives come up with new ideas, change their minds, or are faced with external pressures from the market place and regulators. There is more volatility as resources become more or less available or turnover takes place. Still more when schedules slip in individual projects, extending one project’s use of the resources and therefore, having them not available for another project.

Uncertainty is present because no-one really knows when any of these changes will occur.

Complexity implies the inability to predict the outcome of a change because of the large number of interacting people, places and things. It is present because there is competition for resources, projects effect and are affected by other projects, and business operations must continue, uninterrupted. To add to complexity, there are the personalities of the people involved and the way they relate to one another. If technology is involved (and it usually is) the movement to the cloud, the emergence of ever more powerful tools and relationships among vendors add even more complexity.

Ambiguity means that there is the absence of information, inexactness, imprecision, being open to more than one interpretation, indistinct, "fuzzy." In our portfolio management scenario, there is ambiguity, for example, if the number and nature of individual projects are not well documented or if priorities among projects are not explicitly stated. Priority decisions become ambiguous if the process for setting priorities is poorly defined. Ambiguity can result from an inexact understanding of the availability of resources or from imprecision in the statement of requirements and objectives in any of the projects.

When these converge the results are predictable. They include disagreements among stakeholders vying for shared resources, frequent starts and stops in projects, unnecessary stress on the people involved, and an inability to accurately estimate and predict project milestone dates. These results lead to more VUCA. More and continuous VUCA perpetuates "shoot from the hip" management and contributes to dysfunctional performance.

What to Do

While you cannot eliminate VUCA you can take steps to moderate its impact and reduce the likelihood and frequency of its occurrence. You put up the VUCA Shield referred to in last month’s article.

The VUCA Shield is made up of a practical approach that unambiguously defines objectives, roles and responsibilities, processes, policies and anything else that is needed to do the work or can impact the project. Project and portfolio management tools are important parts of the work to manage VUCA.

The shield moderates the flow and impact of changes, manages expectations and risks, plans and promotes effective designs, and assures clear, unambiguous communication. If you have a mature and realistic PM process, within a healthy portfolio management process, you are already managing VUCA. If, on the other hand, you are faced with people who expect stability, simplicity and certainty and with ambiguous processes and communication, then you have work to do.

In future articles the focus will be on volatility, uncertainty and complexity and how to work with them in your projects.

As always, your feedback, comments, questions are invites and welcome.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 4/30/2018
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