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.