Project Management

The Opportunity in Ambiguity

From the Project Managers Without Borders Blog
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This blog provides project management content and tools for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Our objective is to inspire project managers to volunteer and make a positive difference in the world through project management.

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By Deanna Landers

Most of us are pretty uncomfortable with uncertainty. Of course we are, we’re in project management. We like neat and tidy plans. We like the process to be defined, whether it’s waterfall, agile, a hybrid of the two, or something else. We want everything to be implemented perfectly, without using any of the contingency money that we fought hard to secure. At the end we like to check that box saying that the project was completed on time and under budget, realizing the expected benefits. But the projects we manage, and the business environment that we work within are not always perfect, in fact, they rarely are.

More often than we’d like, we face ambiguity in goals, requirements, schedules, vision, or a variety of other areas within the project and work environment. We need to accept that with the ever-changing business landscape, ambiguity is something we have to deal with. It may even become more prevalent. However, we can flourish when we encounter ambiguity by viewing it as an opportunity rather than a nuisance or a threat.

Simply recognizing an unclear situation as an opportunity creates an opportunity in itself. Being comfortable with a bit of ambiguity provides you with flexibility and freedom because you’re not following the playbook any longer. You’re not filling out the template, or going on to step C after steps A and B. You can view the situation as a turning point, a chance to take a new path, or to create a better one. Being comfortable in a rapidly changing world gives you an advantage, a flexibility that will be called upon often. From ambiguity, you are free to innovate, grow, and involve others in finding solutions.

As an example, just over a year ago Kris Troukens attended PMI’s Africa Congress and learned about challenges the local community was having with recurring flooding. It was a problem that had been in existence for many decades and it was not clear how to address it. People were struggling to define the essence of what needed to be done, though many had experienced unpleasant consequences from the floods.

After gaining an understanding of the magnitude of the problem, Kris recommended the conference organizers and PMI Ghana Chapter representatives initiate contact with all speakers who had addressed the subject and devise a scope statement that could be achieved with a few local and internationally based volunteers. This decision to forge a path through ambiguity and take the first step to clarify one essential component presented a grand opportunity for the community and volunteers supporting it - to recognize an approach and structure to address an important and challenging problem.

The initial ambiguity allowed Kris to step forward and involve the appropriate other people to set the objective and clarify goals. With the direction set and a clear understanding of the goal and path to achieve it, the team was able to advance, and ultimately achieve success together. 

This is how we have an opportunity to step forward into the face of ambiguity, to provide ground rules and some level of clarity for ourselves and others. THIS is leadership.


Deanna Landers is a portfolio manager whose work in ambiguous environments offers many opportunities. She also founded Project Managers Without Borders. 

Posted by Deanna Landers on: October 28, 2017 03:37 PM | Permalink

Comments (17)

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Thanks, Deanna. This is an interesting article. It's great when the situation or task allows the professional(s) to apply experience and skills to the issue at hand without the constraints of a pre-determined path.

Exactly, Andrew! Thanks for sharing your perspective.

We should see our role as setting the environment to help solve problems, rather than solving them ourselves.

An interesting article for the application of leadership and innovation in project management.

@Stéphane- Certainly - As leaders we can accomplish more if we set the stage for many others to solve specific problems. However, I wouldn't reject the idea of solving a problem personally if the right opportunity arises. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Thank you, Sante!

I just find that it is a lot easier to get acceptance of a solution when it has been found by the team. Even when the project manager's solution is valid, it will appear as being imposed on the team.

Good point, Stéphane, I completely agree that team acceptance based on involvement in the decision is most effective.

Interesting. Taking that first step can feel so challenging. But until you get started, nothing will be accomplished. Even if the first step is a misstep, you will learn from it.
Thank you for your article

True, Dinah! The first step is hard, but so worth the effort. Thanks for your comment.

Great article for the community to learn more!

Thank you, Alexandra! Leadership covers lots of different areas, and reading blogs and articles on and other sources helps us be aware of current thoughts and trends in that space. Thanks for the comment.

Each project could provide opportunity to involve more in the decision

Great article, dear Deanna. Leadership roles besides technical skills the continued development of soft skills requires flexibility and adaptability in situations that call for risk and complexity awareness and knowledge.Thanks for bringing these points into attention.

Thank you for the comments, Rashed and Vincent.

My pleasure, Lily! You make a good point about risk awareness contributing to leadership skills in the face of ambiguity. Thanks!

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