Project Management

Use uncertainty poker to increase alignment on delivery approaches

From the Easy in theory, difficult in practice Blog
My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Part of tailoring our approach to delivering a project needs to consider its relative level of uncertainty. While it is not the only determinant of complexity, uncertainty is certainly a key contributing factor. And while there are other dimensions which need to be evaluated when deciding whether to utilize a predictive or adaptive life cycle, higher uncertainty would be a supporting factor for the latter.

But before finalizing a delivery approach, it is important to confirm that all key stakeholders who are directly contributing to or supporting the project are in agreement about the approach. In securing this agreement, it can be helpful to understand individual perceptions about the project's uncertainty as that may affect the stakeholder's opinion.

For example, if a project manager and team believe that the project possesses a high level of uncertainty yet the sponsor does not, it might be a hard sell to get support for an adaptive approach, especially if the sponsor does not have much experience with such life cycles. Even worse, if some team members feel that the project is quite straightforward and others feel it is highly complex, it can be challenging to get consensus on the approach.

Just asking individuals to give you their assessment of uncertainty is unlikely to be too useful. Anchoring and other biases will affect the outcome and understanding uncertainty at an overall level won't really help.

An alternative would be to start by defining specific areas of uncertainty which would influence how the project gets delivered (e.g. commercial viability, solution feasibility, resource availability) and then to use a similar approach to estimating poker by providing everyone with uncertainty poker cards. These cards could have the following pictures on them to represent different levels of uncertainty:

  • A basketball player completing a slam dunk: Complete certainty
  • A brick wall with one brick missing in it: Low uncertainty
  • A glass which is half-full of water: Moderate uncertainty
  • An iceberg with the bulk of the ice underwater: High uncertainty
  • A photo of a very foggy road: Complete uncertainty

Key stakeholders will simultaneously vote on how much uncertainty exists about a given area. Similar to estimating poker, after voting, if there is agreement on the level of uncertainty you can move to the next area. If there is significant difference in perceptions for a given area, this becomes a good opportunity to discuss those.

Not only might this technique help to get alignment on the delivery approach, but it may also help to surface invalid assumptions and to address individual fears and doubts.

"Uncertainty is not an indication of poor leadership; it underscores the need for leadership." - Andy Stanley

Posted on: March 01, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Hi Kiron,

This is indeed an interesting and practical approach, but
Knowing the cultural constrains in several organizations, and the reluctancy in using techniques that's can be associated to "silly games" by top managers, middle managers and stakeholders that have influence or power of decision in the delivery approach.

Do you think that this is viable to apply and present in the organizations? How will you start to introduce this concept?


Thanks Alexandre - I'd agree that it might be a tough sell in certain contexts, so it is safest as with any new idea to run an experiment to see if it "sticks". Perhaps start with just the team and then broaden it to include other stakeholders.

Thanks, Kiron! Interesting piece. As I posted on LI....
Opportunity to offer a [new] way for stakeholders to align on uncertainty while also a showcase to the power of visualization for representing and facilitating complex discussions.


Great post and thoughts. Even in a basketball slam dunk contest, there is uncertainty that a slam dunk might not succeed. I am not sure I agree on complete certainty unless I misunderstood your sentence.


Thanks Andrew! Thanks Rami - the image I'm envisioning for the "Complete certainty" card would that of a successfully executed slam dunk with the ball clearly dropping in the basket :-)

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