by Jean-Luc Favrot, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
What could be the three most representative concepts of project management? Personally, I would choose Value, People, and Uncertainty.
Let’s think about it. Uncertainty is the essence of Life! It is therefore not surprising that a project, evolving in real life, also has to face uncertainty. Anywhere, anytime, and any way.
Many project management activities are aimed at reducing, exploiting, or simply coping with uncertainty—Is the vision clear and shared? How long will it take? How much will it cost? What will we do next month? Will the team be cohesive and performing? Will all of the stakeholders be involved? Uncertainty raises so many questions, and there are a lot of approaches to deal with them throughout a project.
In some cases, you will have no choice but to try to minimize uncertainty from the very beginning of the project—detailed scope, detailed estimates, detailed long-term planning, detailed budget, detailed risk management plan. Then you will establish baselines, manage progress against those baselines, and formally manage change throughout the project.
In other cases, you will start with a clear vision and a rough scope, and detail it along the way as you learn and discover. You will make detailed estimates and plans as late as possible, seek frequent feedback, and foster engagement. You may even fund a project as it progresses and produces results. You will manage risks through a series of short-term experiments, and welcome change.
I have just described two approaches which are at the extremes of the possible spectrum, but they are not mutually exclusive. Mixing and balancing these approaches according to the context is probably the most effective way to lead a project to success. For example, one of the challenges in any project is to identify the right level of effort to be devoted to managing risks. Sometimes, willing to over-secure a project with a comprehensive risk management plan can take too much time and energy at the expense of focusing on delivering value quickly. Working too hard on defining Plan B may prevent you from achieving Plan A. Conversely, thinking that all risks can be managed through experiments is not always relevant. Some risks may be beyond the project team’s reach, and when stakes are high and critical, conducting some specific experiments may be dangerous and lead to an irreversible situation. Therefore, it will probably be more effective to formally manage some risks and to use experiments only on a few, relevant areas.
When you are managing a project, uncertainty is often seen as a never-ending source of impediments. But don’t forget that it also can be considered as a chance to capture new opportunities. Managing opportunities is sometimes as important as managing threats. So be prepared to exploit some unexpected events and take advantage of them!
We project practitioners should be curious, willing to discover and learn many approaches, and also be able to fully understand context, in order to tailor the most appropriate approach to managing uncertainty on a given project.
By definition, uncertainty will never be 100% controllable. That’s why I think that dealing with it is one of the most challenging and exciting activities in project management. As it is part of any project, regardless of its type, industry, environment, and delivery approach, I think that Uncertainty is a key project management performance domain—Really!