Project Management

4 Keys to Lead Through Uncertainty

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by Dave Wakeman

Uncertainty feels like the main topic in a lot of my conversations lately. With economic signals being mixed, layoffs coming rapidly and a lot of political friction happening around the world, it’s easy to understand why.

This got me thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career that have helped me deal with uncertainty. These four keys have helped me repeatedly, and maybe they can help you as well:

1. Communicate, but don’t BS: I always start here because when there is a lot of uncertainty, people are searching for information, facts and…well, certainty. Yet you often have none to give them.

The default action I see in many leaders is that they vomit out a buzzword-filled nothingburger that leaves their teams more uncertain and more fearful.

A better way to approach your communication is to be as clear as possible. By this I mean: Tell people what you know or don’t know.

If you don’t know anything, say it.

If you know there is going to be an update in a week or so, say that.

Don’t make up things to fill the time or space. In your efforts to give your team something, you may feed the uncertainty. Or worse, you may be flat out wrong.

2. Be flexible: This is a good rule for PMs in any environment. There’s usually never one straight line to success. In an uncertain environment, this is probably even more true.

Uncertainty demands flexibility because you don’t know when something is going to pop up and throw you off course. This could take the form of a change in scope. Or you might find that your project is shut down. There could be team members moved, fired or quitting.

All of these demand a certain amount of flexibility in service of your goals.

3. Simplify: A partner to flexibility is simplification. Complexity seems to be the norm in modern life, and when things are uncertain, we likely find ourselves adding complexity as a tool to help keep our minds off of the challenges we are dealing with.

A better way forward is to simplify your work, your procedures and your communications. In truth, simplify things every chance you get. There is psychological relief in knowing you are in control of the things that you can control.

Jimmy Johnson, the former coach of the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, talked about telling his partner that he could sleep like a baby the night before a game because he knew he had done everything he could to prepare for it. That’s really about simplification.

You make things as simple as they can be to make sure that you are doing everything you can do to be successful.

4. Progress, not perfection: An uncertain environment might make that little voice in the back of your head scream, “Everything has to be perfect!”

There is no such thing as perfection. You need to get your head wrapped around the need to make progress and not get lost chasing perfection. Why?

  1. There is no such thing as perfection.
  2. If you just focus on improvement and value, you’ll be surprised how much you get done. Plus, you’ll find that sense of peace we talked about above when you simplify the job you are doing.
  3. Progress is something you can measure. With measurement, you can create momentum and you can see the impact you are making—which helps remove some of the feeling of uncertainty.

As I put this list together, I realized that these ideas hold up in any environment. But it reminded me of a saying I heard somewhere about a crisis showing us who we really are. Maybe that’s what this is all about, using the period of uncertainty to show off who you really are as a leader: focused and effective.

Let me know what you do when dealing with uncertainty in the comments section.

Posted by David Wakeman on: March 08, 2023 07:46 AM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Another thing about perfection is that, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. You might strive to a perfection that does not match your client's idea perfection.

Dear David
Very interesting the theme that brought to our reflection and for debate
Thank you for sharing and for your lessons learned

I liked the Simplification, I would even say oversimplification

When objectives are defined, it is essential to define standards

Great article. I have to remind myself often it's progress over perfection that matters.

Thanks for bringing up the topic, I really like it.
I totally agree that it's critical for a PM to manage well with the uncertainties, especially during those fragile periods.

When facing with uncertainties, your ideas are all what I also tried to do. More, I also practice mindfulness. I need to calm down and look deep into each problem and into myself to understand situations better and to figure out the root causes. I mean, mindfulness to avoid noises.

Limiting uncertainty to worse / best scenario gives the opportunity to frame it and manage more effectively ,as per my experience.

Very nice and helpful blog. Congratulations David

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