Your project is fraught with uncertainty – what should you do?
I was speaking to a client last week about using a project approach to turn his organisation’s new 20 year vision into reality. As we discussed the challenges, it became clear that some of his stakeholders hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which they were peering into a future they couldn’t predict.
He was relieved to be able to speak explicitly about the extent of uncertainty, and to discover that there is a technical term for it. Professor Eddie Obeng describes projects like this as Walking in Fog 
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. Approaches that Professor Obeng describes as Painting by Numbers  because you now have an outline of the way forward which makes filling in the detail relatively straightforward.
When your project is fraught with uncertainty there is no way of escaping the fog
Pretending it’s not foggy, or confusing risk and uncertainty leads to all kinds of problems
Elmer Kutsch and colleagues unpack the differences between risk and uncertainty 
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. These assessments are the basis of risk management approaches
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
If you don’t want to get caught out
When starting a new project or taking over an existing one
- Recognise what you are dealing with and the nature of the journey you are embarking on
- Be explicit and label the project/ journey appropriately
- Remember that risk and uncertainty are ‘ in the eye of the beholder’
Tell your stakeholders when 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
For more on dealing with uncertainty see the book Project Delivery. Uncertainty and Neuroscience – a Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog
- All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, Eddie Obeng. FT Pitmans
- Project Resilience, Elmer Kutsch et al. Gower