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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



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