We must learn to manage complexity, as it is not going away any time soon. The ability to do so may be the differentiation needed to ensure success for individuals and organizations.
According to PMI's Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity
, the most defining characteristic of complexity is ambiguity. This ambiguity can come from requirements, resources, schedules, goals, or a variety of other sources within or outside the project environment. It can even be present due to diverse perspectives of what some people consider to be clear.
Ambiguity offers a unique opportunity to embrace creative leadership and operational agility. When faced with imprecise requirements, or any other nebulous situation we are forced to investigate, we should be proactive rather than reactive, be creative and communicate more. We have the opportunity to explore new territory and dabble in innovation.
Below are some suggestions on how to make the most of ambiguity in a project environment:
- Set the tone. Recognize that there can be value in ambiguity and adopt a flexible approach to handling new or better-defined information. Your attitude is contagious to the team, to the customer, vendors, everyone. If you exude confidence and acceptance, then you are allowing others to feel positive about it too. Set expectations early that ambiguity is a challenge and an opportunity for the team.
- Identify ambiguity. Identify areas of ambiguity, from the earliest point in the project. Often simply understanding and documenting what is vague currently, or expected to be unclear, provides some clarity.
- Reduce uncertainty. Not everything must be clear in order to move forward, but clarity in certain cases is extremely valuable. Distinguish between what needs to be defined, and what can remain vague. For example, defining roles and responsibilities early will allow the team to save valuable time and resources. Where ambiguity can be avoided, it should be eliminated.
- Accept appropriate ambiguity. There will always be facets of a project environment that are out of our control and subject to change or doubt. For instance, government and industry regulations demand compliance yet may be subject to interpretation. Accept the fact that there will be some ambiguity that will remain through a point in time, or even throughout the project, and will need to be addressed as part of the management process.
- Encourage creativity. Encourage creativity in yourself and the team. Consciously consider the possibilities -- allow yourself to "look away" from each challenge, to tap into connections and options that may not be obvious otherwise. Give this permission to the team as well. Keeping an open mind to new approaches will allow for greater flexibility and options in handling a changing environment.
- Be inclusive. Great ideas can come from anywhere. Include the customer (internal or external) and other stakeholders in the quest to apply creativity to ambiguity. IBM's Insights from the Global CEO Study notes that the most successful organizations co-create products and services with customers and integrate customers into core processes.
- Improve communications. When a project lacks clarity, more open and regular communications are needed. Communication is essential so that everyone is aligned in their acceptance -- and rejection -- of where the ambiguity lies in the project environment, and so all are aware of decisions and clarifying information. PMI's Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity concludes that organizations ranked "effective communications to all stakeholders" as the factor having the greatest impact on the success of projects that are highly complex.
Calling upon creative leadership techniques, increasing the frequency and depth of communication, and remaining agile in execution are key approaches to make the most of the presence of ambiguity in a project environment, reducing complexity, and thereby improving the chance for success in meeting project goals and realizing intended business value.