Uncertainty and its Effects on Project Teams

When project teams encounter uncertainty, the ability to tap into solid experience and the right expertise is crucial. It may be a situation where you simply need to ask different questions, connect with different specialists, or evaluate different data points to determine how to move ahead. Other times, you could be running up against a serious lack of clarity—unstable market conditions, economic volatility, a mid-project organizational shakeup, or a raw material shortage, for example.

project teams

Everyone wants to understand uncertainty’s impacts on their initiatives. Your team members need to prepare for whatever may come next and they want to be ready to make progress once the ambiguity clears away. But when people endure an extended period with very little information, problems emerge on the human level that lessen their ability to achieve success.

Whether you’re facing an uncertain path now or you suspect that upcoming events could make key project factors less clear cut, consider some of effects unpredictability may have on your team.

Anxiety is one of the most common side effects of uncertainty and it may be the first to appear in project teams. Even seasoned professionals can become nervous when the level of uncertainty exceeds their personal threshold. Worries could range from wondering if there will be enough money available to complete the current list of projects to wondering if everyone will still have a job once the clouds part. It’s an added stressor that can lead to poor decision making and sometimes go as far as diminishing the quality of your team’s work.

Communications may dwindle when people aren’t sure what’s going on or when the situation will change. This usually isn’t deliberate—they aren’t purposely avoiding each other. Instead, because there’s often very little new information coming in, there’s less data to share internally and the level of communications simply goes down. As anxiety grows within the team, it’s possible people will hear rumors or guesses. If incoming data can’t be quickly verified as useful and reliable, they often won’t share it with the group. The result is that, aside from formal communications sent out by the PM or other high-level stakeholders, the normal conversation flow decreases and team members aren’t as engaged with each other anymore.

A lack of motivation may eventually creep in if the team faces an uncertain environment for too long. Without clear indicators showing they’re making progress toward specific goals, it’s difficult to keep workers excited about what’s next. Their desire to perform well can also taper off, particularly when the normal recognition and reward signals they’re accustomed to seeing are absent. This combination leaves the team even less capable of—or interested in—overcoming challenges. It also increases the chances the project could fail to reach a successful completion once the uncertainty dissipates.

Waning stakeholder engagement may become a problem, too. Just as the team experiences diminishing confidence in their ability to deliver the expected results, your stakeholders might also start to doubt whether things will work out in the end. When people aren’t able to develop a clear picture about what’s happening and what the plan looks like in the future, it becomes tougher to maintain their enthusiasm.

An inability to move forward can sometime take hold. Without very clear direction on what happens after the immediate next steps, it’s possible that some project teams will default to the most conservative approach, and that’s to do nothing until a more solid path is provided for them. They may defer tasks that could be tackled now or put activity sequences on hold because they simply aren’t comfortable doing anything while uncertainty reigns.


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