In project management contexts, uncertainty is the presence of unpredictable variability, ambiguity, and inability to predict the outcome of parameters or foresee events that might impact the project. Nearly every project involves dealing with uncertainty.
In those rare projects marked by low levels of inherent uncertainty, the project manager serves as a coordinator and scheduler, drawing on experience and the use of task-analysis and critical path structures to support project planning efforts. Relationship management centers on defining deliverables, clarifying responsibilities, and conflict identification and resolution.
When high degrees of uncertainty are expected or arise during a project, the manager must identify the uncertainty and be ready to adjust management roles and project plans in response. Arnoud De Meyer, Christoph H. Loch, and Michael T. Pich developed a taxonomy that emphasizes uncertainty as related to project management techniques. It includes four different types of uncertainty: variation, foreseen uncertainty, unforeseen uncertainty, and chaos. Most projects are characterized by the presence of several of these types, each one requiring a different management approach.
Variation arises when small, unpredictable influences affect the critical path. For example, budget, schedule and specifications of a construction project can shift due to delayed materials delivery, weather, worker illness and injury, and unanticipated task difficulty.
In response to variation, managers play a troubleshooting role to identify deviations and implement solutions that will bring the project back on track. The issue will likely be gaining control of small slippages in budget, schedule, and deliverables rather than implementing radical changes to the plan. Instead of relying on a reactive approach, the manager should project and account for potential variation during the project planning stage, then position buffers at strategic points.
Managing Foreseen Uncertainty
Foreseen uncertainties are identifiable and understood but still unpredictable. Preparation for these uncertainties involves emplacing typical risk and contingency management measures.
The role of the project manager is to identify events that might affect the project. For example, by listing potential risk and/or opportunity events and developing strategies for dealing with any that materialize during the project. The manager must be sure that all parties are aware of and buy into the contingency plans and alternative outcomes.
Using project management software like that provided by Timewax will also help to reduce uncertainty, as you will have a far clearer picture of who is doing what and the different tasks required to complete each project.
Managing Unforeseen Uncertainty
Unforeseen uncertainty presents a stiff challenge because it is impossible to put complete contingency plans in place and software can’t predict unknowns (unless A.I. develops further!) Instead, any plans have to emerge and develop while the project progresses.
Managers must continually watch for emerging threats or opportunities while remaining ready to learn from the incoming information and formulate solutions on the fly. Project managers should also focus on managing relationships with stakeholders with an eye to cultivating a willingness to accept unplanned change.
Chaos arises on projects that run with uncertainty as a basic factor and without stable assumptions or goals. For example, in the realm of rapidly changing and developing technology or when pure research is the primary pursuit.
Chaotic projects demand extreme flexibility on the part of managers, teams, and stakeholders. Project management is characterized by constant learning. Teams work from conceptual models rather than plans, remaining ready to redefine models or even the entire project based on what is learned. Managers need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, be able to handle constant change and have a high degree of autonomy.
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