Project management teams must regularly cope with uncertainty. From the early planning stages to post-project user surveys, a host of issues are likely to present PMP®s with unknowns and question marks.

As the project scope is being set, stakeholders often toss around a host of potential achievables while the project team quietly wonders what they’ll actually be tasked with executing. While the project is underway, issues including material availability, staffing, weather, and pending legislative actions can cause uncertainty. Even after the project is complete there are often lingering unknowns. Stakeholders may evaluate user feedback and consider if any of the suggestions might merit the initiation of new projects. (To PMP®s, this smells a lot like the uncertainty that surrounds scope creep.)

Dealing with uncertainty effectively can be a challenge. Ensuring the Project Team is able to understand the uncertainties they face and achieve success in spite of them is paramount. Project leaders have several strategies they can use to help their teams overcome the obstacles uncertainty often presents.

PMP® Uncertainty

Why uncertainty exists

Though uncertainty within a project team may exist for a variety of reasons, the following two triggers are perhaps the most common.

Lack of data. Critical project information comes into the Project Team from a huge number of sources. It may be gathered from stakeholders, provided by vendors and consultants, distributed by governmental agencies or industry-focused groups, and even gleaned from various projects the Project Team has managed in the past. If key data points are missing, it can make the team very unsure about how best to move forward or whether particular aspects of the project can be executed successfully.

Available data can’t be trusted. The mere presence of data often isn’t enough—the team must know the information they’re using as the basis for critical decisions is accurate. Sometimes PMP®s wonder about the credibility of the data itself, while other times they simply don’t know if the data being presented is complete and/or current. Without trustworthy information to form the basis of the team’s strategy, the entire project can become mired in second guesses and what ifs.

Coping with uncertainty

First, determine why uncertainty exists. If crucial data is needed but not yet available, for example, set a date when that information is expected to come and shift the team’s focus to other activities in the meantime. This type of uncertainty typically resolves on its own once the data arrives.

Next, develop contingency plans. There may be times when the availability of additional data is unknown or is likely to occur later than would be ideal. In these instances, the team must put together one or more strategies that take different potential data outcomes into account.

Finally, determine which decisions can be made now. Sometimes it may be necessary to choose a course of action without having every piece of information the team would like. This will allow the team to continue moving the project forward as planned.

When uncertainty might be a sign of bigger issues

For Project Teams that regularly find their projects bogged down in uncertainty, it may be time to reevaluate the practices employed during the planning phase. Is enough information being collected when determining needs and scope? Are contingency plans viable and realistic? Early identification of potential issues is crucial to resolving uncertainty.

If uncertainty prevents the team from consuming resources efficiently or executing projects successfully, it may be helpful to evaluate the approach used by the team’s leadership. Are they pursuing credible data and necessary resources effectively? Is stakeholder engagement a priority? Ensuring the Project Team has what it needs to succeed is critical to overcoming uncertainty.

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