How can I avoid uncertainty?
Many things in life are uncertain. We find it difficult to calculate the effects of decisions. Developments, projects and changes are difficult to predict. What often follows is the question: “How can I avoid uncertainty? The question is understandable, because unexpected events are associated with a loss of control, and for most of us – and I include myself in this – it doesn’t feel really good.
But I was surprised when I was last asked the question. It was at the PM Camp Berlin, a bar camp that addresses many topics around organizations and projects. There I was allowed to create a session on the topic “Impulses for Uncertainty – Ideas and Suggestions for Acting and Deciding in Uncertainty”. About half of the participants wanted to learn how to avoid uncertainty. For me, this was surprising, because until then I had assumed that project team members (wanted to) experience precisely this uncertainty on the basis of their experience and, above all, were interested in the necessary skills to be able to make decisions and act when unexpected events occur. Obviously this assumption is too optimistic and now I also understand why the handling of uncertainty has not found resonance either at PM conferences or in the Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement (GPM) after initial enthusiasm.
Avoidance instead of action
After my discussions at the PM Camp Berlin and the reflection with colleagues afterwards, I basically see two types of project workers who are interested in avoiding rather than acting in uncertainty and they seem to be (still) in the majority in the community:
Project workers who hope or wish to avoid the unexpected.
Project workers who do not yet have sufficient skills to prevent the unexpected.
On the basis of this insight, I have decided to put uncertainty prevention back into the focus of my work, because the fact that project workers have competences for prevention and/or also recognise these competences is an important prerequisite for productive, actively shaping action in unexpected situations and events.
What is uncertainty anyway?
For a better understanding I would like to make a short excursion into the concept of uncertainty and explain what uncertainty actually means. In the GPM expertise “Dealing with Uncertainty in Projects”¹ and the follow-up activities, we (the team of authors) defined uncertainty as the set of unexpected events that occur despite the best and most competent planning. Uncertainty is accompanied by a sense of loss of control and security. This is where competencies to act and decide in dealing with uncertainty come into play, by promoting the sense of security required for decision-making and acting elsewhere.
We have separated the concept of complexity from that of uncertainty. Complexity is something that could be expected if “one” had sufficient knowledge and could therefore plan everything. The boundaries of concepts become blurred in ongoing discussions, and complexity is often interpreted in the direction of complicated, as a differentiation from complexity.
Ultimately, the distinction between uncertainty and complexity is not really relevant for real, everyday life. What both have in common is that even with the best possible planning, events occur that go beyond what is expected. And both definitions also have in common that a professional approach to planning – and this also includes uncertainty prevention – is a prerequisite for a competent approach to the unexpected. In the following I will therefore speak neutrally of the unexpected, and by this I mean all those events which, with appropriate planning, fall outside the scope of what can be expected.
In order to act and decide in the unexpected, experience and expertise are required for the context, and this is promoted and professionalised in projects by the use of classical PM methods. Their appropriate use makes project participants experts for the context of their project, and of course this also includes the necessary measures for uncertainty prevention.
Uncertainty prevention in practice
The term uncertainty prevention is certainly not sexy, but I don’t know a better term at the moment. Uncertainty prevention includes all measures that ensure that the unexpected is reduced to the minimum described in the definition – namely to the “unavoidable level”. In classical PM, these are disciplines such as planning and control, stakeholder and expectation management, risk management, and contract clarification.
From practical project work we know that planning and control are often inappropriate for the project context – often too high and too detailed, but of course there is also too little. And we know that the costs of good contract clarification and risk management are often underestimated and underperformed, jeopardizing the success of the project. These practical observations are also supported by scientific studies on project success.
In my various PM trainings (Level D IPMA, PMI-based) I have learned a lot about project goals, their definition and their required measurability. This fits into a project model that moves within the triangle of time, cost and scope. In my practical work as a project manager and later as a PMO manager, I have repeatedly observed that even in projects that achieved defined goals within the given triangle together with the client, stakeholders and the PM team, the satisfaction with the project result was significantly lower than the measurable result would have suggested. In the course of the project reviews, there were frequent discussions about these measurable results, which is why a goal was allegedly not achieved after all, meant differently, etc. Also the constant adjustment and comparison of project goals between client and contractor did not really improve this situation. I experience and observe similar misunderstandings with agile approaches.
The goal behind the goal
So what leads to the fact that despite the comparison of “SMART” goals, the enthusiasm of the client for the project result is missing? From my current point of view as a systemic consultant, there is often one central question missing at the beginning of a collaboration: What is the goal behind the goal? In other words: which intention is pursued?
This goal behind the goal is the first and decisive step in clarifying the assignment in the project. This is where the expectations and fears of the client become clear. Getting to know the expectations forms the basis for good expectation management. This first step can be done very simply and playfully with the help of the systemic question technique. Systemic questioning is a simple and at the same time powerful tool. It serves to really understand the counterpart and to get a “picture of his/her perspective”. Basics for systemic questions can be well conveyed in a half-day seminar.
Questions with system
I would like to give you some key questions that you can easily adapt to your context. I use the term ” assignment ” as an example, because I do not use such a question sequence only for projects. It is also helpful in clarifying services, in understanding the tasks of the boss, in job interviews, etc..:
“Suppose the assignment (its result) is a success,
- then what’s different from today?” (at least 3 very concrete changes)
- how does that change your situation?” (also very concretely described)
- “What problems will then no longer exist?”
- “What would you miss compared to today?”
The answers will give you a good idea of the positive effects of the assignment for the client. At the same time, the last question implies that the changes could also eliminate something “hotly beloved”.
- “How would Mr / Mrs X [here an important person well known to the interviewee who is affected by the assignment or project and possibly has other intentions] answer these questions?”
With this question you broaden the perspective of your client; often hidden requirements of the organisation and the stakeholders come to the table, which you would otherwise encounter only belatedly in the project.
- “On a scale of 0 to 10, how important is the outcome of this assignment?” (0= huh what assignment, 10=if it is not fulfilled, I quit)
After answering this question, you can estimate how much support you will receive from the client and where possible “competition” lurks for his or her support.
- “What has to happen that you would say, the assignment was not successful?”
- “How can I contribute as a contractor?”
Other possible requests:
- “When would you even cancel the assignment?”
- “What would be the consequences of failure for you?
With this question you get to know the limits of your counterpart. They are highly effective, but in most cases should be asked several times, as it is unusual in our culture to talk about failure in advance.
If you are additionally looking for ideas for first steps and quick wins, ask on the scale from 0 to 10 about the current situation of the client with regard to the question of the assignment and what would have to happen to improve it on the scale by one stroke. When defining 0 and 10, make sure that the wording is an extreme and that it is not chosen or exceeded.
Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.