Project Management

Shifting Change: Insider Tips from Project Leaders

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Today's world is influenced by change. Project managers and their organizations need to embrace and sometimes drive changes to keep up with the pace in highly competitive environments. In this blog, experienced professionals share their experiences, tips and tools to manage and exploit changes and take advantage of them. The blog is complimentary to the webinar series of the Change Management Community Team and is managed by the same individuals.

About this Blog


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Ross Wirth
Carole Osterweil
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Corona: Reducing Team Uncertainty

Welcome to my second blog on dealing with Corona Uncertainty. The message in my first blog was clear

We need Thinking brains online for high quality decision making.

This means learning to contain anxiety so we don't get caught up in Project Stress Cycles.  With Thinking Brains online we can have informed discussions and take high quality decisions about how to proceed.

In this blog, I'm offering a tool to facilitate your discussions and decision making.  This tool is designed to help keep your Thinking Brains online because it allows you to talk explicitly about uncertainty.

Yes, you read that right!  It's a tool for talking about uncertainty - not risk. 

The case for talking about uncertainty

Project Managers love a business case - here's mine.

  • Uncertainty is a driver of social threat
  • It takes our Thinking Brains offline.
  • In many project environments it takes a huge amount of courage to say 'I'm not sure about this' - especially when no one else is speaking out and the prevailing culture is to talk about risk.

I unpacked the differences between risk and uncertainty with help from Elmer Kutsch and colleagues in Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience [1]

  • Risks are associated with clarity and predictability – they can be quantified through a rational assessment of how likely, based on past experience, an event is to occur. 
  • Uncertainties are assumptions associated with ambiguity and novelty – they are difficult to articulate and define. But, this shouldn’t prevent you treating them seriously and exploring them carefully. After all, uncertainties that come to pass have a real, and sometimes catastrophic, impact on delivery and outcomes.

Corona is an uncertainty that has come to pass and it's bringing many more in its wake. We can't manage the risks away - no matter how much we want to!  We simply don't have the past experience to draw on. 

Sticking our heads in the sand or pretending we can manage the risks away doesn't work. It doesn't contain anxiety -  people can see straight through it - as our politicians are discovering. The only way to proceed is by being transparent and talking about uncertainty. 

Doing so reduces social threat and social contagion.  When you use the tool below, talking about uncertainty it is quite straightforward.  You'll find it makes a huge difference.

Tool for Exploring Uncertainty

My tool is based on Eddie Obeng’s project typology and Ralph Stacey’s work on complexity


Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience © Visible Dynamics

Try it now in three steps.  Go on.

Step 1 Use the graph to plot where you are today with a project to deliver and Corona looming.  Put a cross in the top right  if you feel like you’re Walking in Fog (very uncertain with little agreement on the way forward ). Put it in the bottom left if it’s more like Painting by Numbers (you know the kids’s game – where there's a clear outline and you just have to add the colours to make the picture)

Step 2 Forget about Corona, think about your personal preferences.  Where do you usually feel most comfortable?  Top right, bottom left, somewhere in the middle?

Step 3 What does this tell you about yourself and the impact of Corona Uncertainty on you and your Thinking Brain?  I’m guessing that most of us are in the top right. I’m also guessing that it's a pretty uncomfortable place to be - even for those of us who like fog and are drawn to uncertainty.

And I’m curious, what is it like to have these labels and to be explicit about your response to uncertainty?

In my experience these labels help us make sense of uncertainty. They provide great clarity and help to bring our Thinking Brains online.  

Add to this the knowledge that Walking in Fog needs a completely different approach to Painting by Numbers and you have a way forward.

Walking in Fog needs a completely different approach

When you’re Walking in Fog the best approach is to set out to explore and understand the uncertainty.  You make progress by explicitly exploring the terrain, aiming to put stakes in the ground as you gain clarity, and making informed decisions about where to look next to reduce the uncertainty further.

Working in this way, you eventually develop enough experience of the terrain to make realistic risk assessments.  When you reach this point it’s appropriate to adopt more traditional approaches to project planning and risk management.  You can start Painting by Numbers.


There is no way of escaping the fog!  Pretending it’s not foggy, or confusing risk and uncertainty leads to all kinds of problems.

If you don’t want to get caught out (and this applies to starting a new project or taking over an existing one) as well as responding to Corona: 

  • Recognise what you are dealing with and the nature of the journey
  • Be explicit and label the project/ journey appropriately
  • Remember risk and uncertainty are ‘in the eye of the beholder’
  • Tell your stakeholders and your team members you are Walking in Fog – literally! 
  • Talk about uncertainties, what you don’t know and what you need to discover
  • Ask them what they are uncertain about and where they feel most exposed
  • Explain it may be uncomfortable, especially if they or others expect you to be Painting by Numbers
  • Be confident that done right, the fog will clear and you’ll be able to turn uncertainties into risks – even though the fog will be patchy for a while
  • Be ready to change approach and start Painting By Numbers where the fog has cleared sufficiently

And tell me how you get on! 

Other Blogs in this Series


[1] Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics

Posted by Carole Osterweil on: April 06, 2020 06:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Corona - Reducing Personal Uncertainty

“It’s nuts. We’re in freefall. Business has dropped by 30% overnight. We’ve never seen anything like it.  We don’t know if we’ll be here in 2 weeks”.

This client, like many of us in the early days of the Corona outbreak, is in a spin.  How can he deal with the uncertainty?

It’s tempting to turn very British and tell him to Keep Calm and Carry On. But he, like many others needs more than that.  In this, and the next blog of the series, I’ll be answering his question. 


By offering a route for containing anxiety and a tool for dealing with uncertainty so that you can be confident in the quality of your decision making and avoid getting caught up in a Project Stress Cycle

My recommendations build on the foundations set out in my previous blog SCARF a Brain–based Model for Managing People on Projects.   If you have read that blog you will know

  • Uncertainty is a key driver of social threat
  • Social threat takes our Thinking brains offline

For high quality decisions we need our Thinking Brains online.  With Corona dominating everything around us, our challenge is to get our Thinking Brains online and to keep them there. 


How do we get our Thinking Brains online?

Part of the answer is to label accurately how you are feeling.  Now I may have trained in psychotherapy, but I am not going to put you on the couch or suggest you do lots of touchy-feely stuff!

Instead, I’m offering you a Brain Hack for dealing with anxiety


Judson Brewer a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times about the Corona virus, anxiety and social contagion (the fact that other people, seeing we are anxious, begin to feel anxious too), suggests this brain hack [1].

“To hack our brains and break the anxiety cycle, we need to become aware of two things: that we are getting anxious or panicking and what the result is. This helps us see if our behavior is actually helping us survive, or in fact moving us in the opposite direction — panic can lead to impulsive behaviors that are dangerous...

Once we are aware of how unrewarding anxiety is, we can then deliberately bring in the “bigger better offer.” Since our brains will choose more rewarding behaviors simply because they feel better, we can practice replacing old habitual behaviors — such as worry — with those that are naturally more rewarding.

For example, if we notice that we have a habit of touching our face, we can be on the lookout for when we act that behavior out. For example:

  • If we are starting to worry: “Oh no, I touched my face, maybe I’ll get sick!”,

  • Instead of panicking, take a deep breath and ask: “When was the last time I cleaned my hands?”

  • Think. “Oh, right! I just washed my hands.”


Let me summarise the sequence for you

  • press the pause button
  • notice how you are feeling and name it (worried, stressed etc..) 
  • take a deep breath
  • be curious and explore what's going on for you by asking yourself a question or two 'What's this feeling about?', 'When did I last wash my hands?' etc.

Neuroscience research tells us that this sequence helps to bring our Thinking brain online.

It's a sequence I've used frequently in my coaching over the last five years.  Clients are typically delighted with the clarity it brings to their decision making.  They are often surprised too.  Surprised because many of them had previously dismissed any suggestion of focusing on their breath/ feelings' as new age nonsense! 

I used to do the same.  In fact, like many of my clients, when feeling anxious my reflex response used to be to ignore it -  I'd carry on regardless.  I didn't understand that my anxiety would leak out anyway, and other people would pick it up at a subconscious level.  My anxiety would add to their anxiety levels and impact their decision making too. 

Learning to keep our Thinking brain online is a core skill

Learning to keep our Thinking brain online is a core skill for every project professional.   Using this sequence may fell clunky at first - in that respect it's just like learning any other skill. 

Persevere with it and teach it your families, colleagues and friends. 

Corona virus is unlike any challenge we've faced before.  Dealing with it well requires us to  contain anxiety and to keep our Thinking brains online.  Do this and we can be confident of making informed decisions about what's required and how to behave.



and coming soon



[1]   A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle, Judson A. Brewer, M.D.  accessed March 14

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Posted by Carole Osterweil on: April 02, 2020 11:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Change Requests and the Project Stress Cycle

Welcome to the third in this series of blogs exploring what the project world can learn from neuroscience

Handle a change request badly and you can trigger a stress cycle that adds layers of complexity to project delivery.

Stakeholders changing their minds can be exasperating – especially when you think you’ve  finally tied everything down!  Everyone in the project profession recognises the risk of scope creep. Far fewer recognise that their response to a change request is important too.

Your response to a change request matters

When a stakeholder changes their mind it’s crucial we don’t let it wind us up. Why?

When we are stressed or upset we find it harder to regulate our emotions and keep our Thinking brain online [1]. This can lead to a chain reaction – a ‘project stress cycle’ – that amplifies stress levels and sets hares running – making it far more difficult to achieve  successful project outcomes.

Read on to find out how to spot a project stress cycle and what to do about it if you are caught in one.  Then check out the video conversation for a summary.


What is a Project Stress Cycle?

Picture Fred a senior project team member. Things are not going his way. He’s getting increasingly frazzled.

He is holding it together but doesn’t realise how stressed he is. This most recent change request was last straw – he is snapping at everyone and finding it harder to act in a rational manner.


illustration of the Project Stress Cycle

The Project Stress Cycle

Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog [2]

The impact on those around him is palpable. No one wants to provoke an outburst, so they give him a wide berth. And of course, after a bruising meeting it’s hard to keep your own Thinking brain online. Trust is falling across the piece and relationships and communication are suffering.

When the project started Fred and his colleagues went out of their way to highlight the need to invest time in building relationships and ensuring people worked well together. They repeatedly reminded the team ‘successful delivery relies on collaboration and creativity’.

But now the pressure is on and metrics are the primary focus. As relationships get strained collaboration is more difficult. Rather than waste time struggling to work together people are falling back into old habits and old silos. They are relying on approaches that worked in the past. But without quality collaboration it’s hard to be truly creative.

And the word on the street? The project is unlikely to achieve the desired outcomes – which does nothing for stress levels.

Powerful stakeholders are getting nervous. They are demanding more and more information in slightly different formats to reassure themselves that things are under control. These demands distract the team from the work they should be doing and add to the stress.

They have less time and less inclination to work collaboratively and the preoccupation with spreadsheets and metrics is forcing them to adopt behaviours that reduce the chance of success and multiply stress – right across the system.

In telling this story I have illustrated how one person’s response to a change request can increase the complexity of delivery. Yet this is a simplification of what happens in real life. Real life involves many stakeholders and many responses to a single change request – not all of them proportionate or rational.

I’m not suggesting that stress is a bad thing – a little goes a long way. (I don’t know about you, but I’m suspicious of dashboards that only show green flags).



We need to be on the look out for signs of excess stress and we need to be looking for patterns. It’s not enough to keep an eye on how individuals, (including ourselves) are responding to change requests. We need to be checking how project boards and project teams are responding too.

I’ve written elsewhere about the need for psychological safety [3]. A lack of it is often an indicator of things going awry.

Excess Stress can trigger a cycle that plays out across the wider project system and impact delivery


Next time a stakeholder changes their mind

  • Press the pause button
  • Check out how you are feeling about this news
  • Do you need to do anything to bring your Thinking brain online?

If you suspect there’s a project stress cycle at work,

  • Name it – with the intention of checking out whether others can see it too.
  • Use the diagram above, or the story of Fred to test the ground.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly things can shift once you’ve got a way to describe what is really going on!



Check out this video clip for a summary. 

As this is the first time I've included a video clip in a blog here,  please use the comments below to let me know whether it's helpful and whether I should do so again.


and coming soon

  • Corona Reducing Personal Uncertainty
  • Corona Reducing Team Uncertainty



[1] Osterweil, C. (2016). Using Insights from Brain Science to Manage Projects and Influence Change -. [online] Visible Dynamics. Available at: [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].

[2] Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics

[3] Osterweil, C. (2017). Self-protection is natural and psychological safety is king! -. [online] Visible Dynamics. Available at: [Accessed 21 Feb. 2020].


Posted by Carole Osterweil on: February 24, 2020 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCARF a Brain–based Model for Managing People on Projects

Welcome to the second in this series of blogs exploring what the project world can learn from neuroscience. 

I set out my stall in the first blog - projects don’t behave the way textbooks say they should.  Neither do people.  

How often have you seen a team member becoming defensive or a client getting wound up and quite aggressive over something relatively minor? Or perhaps you’ve sat in a meeting when you suspect that several others, like you, are convinced that the discussion is adding no value, or even worse it’s downright unhelpful – yet nobody does anything about it.

Have you noticed how few people talk openly about finding project delivery, with its complexity and uncertainty, stressful and anxiety-provoking?  Yet plenty do so in private! 

Neuroscience tells us stress and anxiety impact our ability to think clearly

Neuroscience tells us that stress and anxiety impact our ability to think clearly, increasing the chance that we’ll misread the situation and behave in ways which raise the stakes and add complexity.

This blog sets out five Brain Basics and explains the SCARF model which will help you spot what’s going on beneath the surface in these highly charged moments.

Read on and you'll see why I recommend that everyone involved in project delivery acquires a basic understanding of how the human brain works and uses this knowledge to inform their actions.   



Source: Visible Dynamics

Take a moment to reflect on charged moments you’ve been party to.

Use the five Brain Basics to consider what might have been going on beneath the surface. How does thinking in terms of ‘avoidance’ and ‘approach’ emotions and behaviours help you make sense of the situation?

Social threats cause avoidance behaviours, so we need to understand what they are and where they come from.  That’s where SCARF comes in!

What is the SCARF Model?

There are five factors that the brain is always monitoring and they have a huge impact on how we behave.

David Rock developed the SCARF model to explain these factors[i]  We are acutely sensitised to look out for them.  SCARF stands for:  

  • Status – the perception of being considered better or worse than others
  • Certainty – the predictability of future events
  • Autonomy – the level of control we feel able to exert over our lives
  • Relatedness – the sense of having shared goals and being part of the ‘in crowd’
  • Fairness – the sense that we are being respected and treated fairly in comparison to others 

When people sense a change in any one of the SCARF factors, it can activate an avoidance response - The bigger the change the stronger the response.

An example of SCARF in action 

Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience  - A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog .[ii]


Responding to Social Threat

We see and respond to social threat in the most mundane situations.  These threats do not have to be explicit, intentional or real.  We only have to perceive that our status has been reduced or that we are being treated unfairly and we will respond with avoidance behaviours.

The converse is also true.  When we believe we are being treated fairly and that we have a degree of control over the future it’s easier be highly productive.  We want the feelings of excitement and trust that come with engagement.



Understanding how the brain works adds new perspectives to many good leadership practices.  Take the adage ‘When dealing with change communicate, communicate, communicate!’

SCARF guides us to five areas that need to inform all our actions in organisational and project settings.

For example, by highlighting our desire for certainty, SCARF tells us that the prospect of change – whether a tweak to the IT system or wholesale digital transformation is likely to activate a threat response.  We need to include this knowledge in our project planning, and make sure that we prioritise activities to reduce the degree of uncertainty and counter the threat response.

This means speaking to people about the vision for the future, and sharing plans for achieving objectives; it means explicitly discussing what you do know about the future and being willing to admit what you have yet to work out; and it means offering timescales or admitting ‘we can’t tell you now but we will tell you by …’ 

This table gives further examples for using SCARF in organisational and project settings.


Using SCARF on Projects

Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog

We’ve seen from Brain Basics and the discussion of SCARF and that every interaction with another person triggers a change in the intensity and quality of our emotions.  Most of us are unaware of the ebbs and flows of our emotions. Yet it’s these changes, driven by our innate need to survive, that determine how we behave. 



On projects we rarely work in isolation. There are as many sources of social interaction and emotional triggers as people in the proverbial room (which includes those we connect with digitally via email, video and social media).   This means we must:

  • Remember SCARF.
  • Learn to spot when avoidance emotions and behaviours are triggered (in you and others!)
  • Develop the skills to contain them and to evoke an approach response instead

It will stop you adding to the volatility uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of VUCA environments. It will bring down stress levels, reduce distractions and allow you to focus on what really matters - achieving your project goals.





[i] Rock, D (2009) Managing with the Brain in Mind   Strategy +Business, Autumn 2009, Issue 56 Retrieved from:

[ii] Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics





Posted by Carole Osterweil on: January 27, 2020 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

What Can the Project World Learn from Neuroscience?

Welcome to the first blog in a series of four, where I explore what neuroscience has to offer the project world.  In a nutshell, understanding how the human brain works makes for higher productivity and better project outcomes with less complexity and less stress.

Source: Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - a Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog

A bold claim I know, so let’s start by getting real.

Projects don’t behave the way textbooks say they should

Project Management is all about carving a clear and visible path to the future.

The trouble is more and more projects are tricky in unconventional ways.  The environment is shifting constantly around us, key stakeholders change their minds for reasons which are hard to comprehend. Politics flare and your project morphs into something quite different yet you are expected to deliver it anyway.

The project managers I work with frequently find that their projects don’t behave the way the textbooks say they should.

The profession is latching onto this.  It now recognizes project managers need to develop their leadership and strategic business skills alongside their process skills.[i]  We’re told the secret is to become adept at working in an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

But what does this mean in practical terms?

The blogs in this series set out to answer this question, so keep an eye out for the following titles:

The VUCA environment is causing profound disconnects between how organisations and projects are supposed to function and what happens in practice.

Walking in Fog

This disconnect often leaves highly talented and experienced project professionals feeling stuck, frustrated, and unable to put a finger on what is going wrong or why.  At times it’s as if a thick fog has descended yet they must keep on walking - even though the way forward is far from clear.[ii]


©Visible Dynamics

Traditional project management has paid scant attention to human experience dismissing it, and almost everything on the people-side as ‘soft and fluffy’.  Look where it has got us!

The stats on project success rates tell us we’ve plenty of room for improvement.  Figures from PMI suggest that only 52% of projects are delivered on time and just 69% meet their goals and business intent[iii].  In the UK a report into major government projects observes that less than 50% have a green or green/amber rating.[iv]  The case for paying attention to the people-side of projects becomes even stronger when we add in recent research into well-being and stress levels amongst project professionals[v] .

One of my colleagues, Stephen Carver at Cranfield University, cites a survey of 250 project professionals.  70% of those asked said socio-political factors (i.e. things to do with relationships, personalities and behaviours under stress) cause them the most trouble on live projects.  Yet this was the focus of only 10% of their training.[vi]

Carver also speaks about being ‘constantly amazed at how much time, effort and money is thrown at structural issues (time, pace, scope etc) and how little at the messy socio-political where the vast majority of problems occur.’

I used to be just the same.

However, since writing Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog and hearing people’s reactions to it, I am less surprised by the lack of investment.  I’ve come to a different understanding of why we’ve neglected the people stuff for so long and why so many find it so tricky.

It seems touchy feely because historically we’ve lacked basic building blocks.

We’ve Lacked Basic Building Blocks

Scientists would be at sea without a grasp of molecular structure.  Engineers would be in a bind without the laws of physics, and just imagine being a linguist without grammar.  Yet we’re asking project managers to demonstrate great leadership and people management skills without a model that’s robust enough to make real sense of why people behave as they do.

I’m not blaming PMI, APM or anyone else. The science was not there.  But with recent advances in neuroscience things have changed.

Neuroscience Changes Everything

We now understand how the human brain works and how emotions drive behaviour.  Yes, you read that right – emotions drive behaviour!  We have compelling scientific evidence that clarifies what constitutes good leadership in a VUCA world.  It demonstrates how emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness can help us contain complexity and manage stress levels[vii].    

I know, I’m making it sound easy.  But give me a chance - if you want to be adept at working in a VUCA world look out for my next three blogs and PM Point of View podcast. They’ll give you

  • a model of how the human brain works, so you can understand why people behave as they do
  • tips on reducing stress and project complexity and
  • practical advice on dealing with uncertainty

Next Up

I’m looking forward to sparking rich conversations.  What in this resonates with you?  What is exciting and what do you find more challenging?


[i] PMI (2014) PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: In-depth Report: Navigating Complexity, Project Management Institute (PMI)

[ii] Osterweil, C (2019) Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog, London: Visible Dynamics, p13

[iii] Project Management Institute (2018) Research Highlights by Industry and Region, Project Management Institute (PMI)

[iv] UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority (2018) Annual Report on Major Projects 2017-18

[v]  Well Being of Project Professionals, APM

[vi] Project Management Paradise [accessed 3 December 2019] Episode 42: Interview with Stephen Carver,  Project Management Paradise [Online]

[vii] Belack,C (2019), Cognitive Readiness in Project Teams: reducing project complexity and increasing success in project management. C Belack , New York: Routledge 







Posted by Carole Osterweil on: December 17, 2019 09:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)


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