"As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground—something predictable to stand on—seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process."
- Pema Chodron, The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human, Tricycle Magazine

In projects, we plan to get a sense of how much time, effort and money a project will take. Those who understand reality realize that plans, while they influence the outcome, do not determine it with 100% certainty. Uncertainty is a fact of life. Once that is accepted project managers can do what is needed to set and manage stakeholder expectations and minimize (though not eliminate) uncertainty.

In projects there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The things we know are relatively easy to handle. We can comfortably plan. Though, there are times that we thought we knew something and it turns out we really didn't. In other words, we assumed something, acted upon it and suffered the consequences.

In earlier articles, we covered VUCA - the convergence of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - and within VUCA, we addressed ambiguity and complexity. In this article the subject is uncertainty. While we can assess it on its own, with the intent to minimize its impact, uncertainty is intertwined with the other aspects of VUCA. Complexity is defined in terms of the inability to predict the outcome of a change, volatility and ambiguity increase uncertainty.

We Can Manage Uncertainty

It is the PMs responsibility to learn to live with uncertainty and to help others to live with it as well. Living with uncertainty is not easy. Many, if not all, of us experience a felt sense of discomfort when we are faced with uncertainty. Maybe it is a queasy feeling in the stomach or tightness in the chest, a sense of panic or a general anxiety.

The discomfort is compounded when there is pressure from regulators, clients and sponsors for delivery by a fixed date, within a fixed cost regardless of uncertain resource availability and requirements and the reality of change. Rather than denying the discomfort of uncertainty by making believe we can predict the outcome of a complex project with certainty, accept the discomfort and move forward in a way that protects the project stakeholders and the organization from the consequences of unrealistic expectations.

As a PM make sure that all stakeholders understand that uncertainty is unavoidable and normal and that denying it, while also normal, is unskillful. Denying uncertainty results in project failure. In my book, Managing Expectations, project success is defined as satisfying stakeholder expectations. Those stakeholders who do not accept uncertainty as a reality set themselves up for disappointment. If they are powerful stakeholders, everyone will suffer.

Part of the PM's expectation management work is communication and courage. The PM must continuously remind stakeholders of uncertainty and have the courage to risk the anger of senior stakeholders by sticking to reality when planning and promising results. Reminders are best when they come in the form of realistic predictions of conditions for getting the project work done. That brings us to the PM process and the things we can do to manage uncertainty and expectations.

Plan Realistically

First, plan realistically (make most likely estimates as opposed to optimistic ones), then communicate, monitor and control in a way that highlights variance from the plan. Adjust the plan as needed to keep it as a reasonably accurate prediction of the outcome.

Realistic planning means clearly differentiating between deterministic and probabilistic planning. The deterministic approach calls for one course of events with firm single point time and cost estimates. Probabilistic planning allows for multiple scenarios and a range of cost/time outcomes. A classic example of probabilistic planning is the PERT approach in which a task network is established based on dependencies among tasks and each task is estimated with optimistic, pessimistic and most likely outcomes. A weighted average is computed for each task to enable a single point estimate that is based on the probability of each of the three outcomes. The Monte Carlo approach adds computing power to calculate a large number of possible outcomes within the estimate range for each task to enable a statistically accurate distribution.

These approaches are labor intensive and appropriate for very large projects; however, smaller projects are also in need of a probabilistic approach. That can be done through a less statistically based approach. Risk analysis provides the foundation for best and worst case scenarios. Based on an assessment of risks the PM can determine, at least, a rough sense of the possible worse case as well as the optimistic and most likely scenarios. A risk register provides the focal point for continuous assessment of the project's health and the expected outcome.

As the project proceeds, risk assessments continue. Stakeholders are given a sense of variances, their causes and the projection to completion based on a reassessment of the plan in light of current circumstances. Communication of variances, accomplishments and risk status should be regular and as automated as possible so that stakeholders are kept abreast of project performance in accordance to their level of interest and involvement.

Managing Uncertainty

As uncomfortable as it may be, do your best to accept and manage uncertainty.

Those who expect certainty set themselves up for disappointment and miss the opportunity to create contingent plans and promote adaptability.

Those who expect and accept uncertainty do not suffer fear and discomfort as intensely as others. They see uncertainty as something to be managed and directed. They manage expectations and are more likely to succeed.

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 6/29/2018
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