In Wendy’s Utopian Fantasyland (wanna live there yet?) – there would be no uncertainty or ambiguity.
Every decision, every plan, will be made within clear, stable environments.
Priorities would be unchanging.
Markets and competition would be understood and predictable.
And all stakeholders agree on the scope, desired results and importance of the project.
You can stop laughing now…..
Kailash Awati, at 8 to Late, recently identified some issues with common decision and estimation techniques.
The distinction between uncertainty and ambiguity points to a problem with quantitative decision-making techniques such as cost-benefit analysis, multicriteria decision making methods or analytic hierarchy process. All these methods assume that decision makers are aware of all the available options, their preferences for them, the relevant evaluation criteria and the data needed. This is almost never the case for consequential decisions.
Kailash Awati, 8 to Late – Uncertainty, Ambiguity and the Art of Decision-Making
Options are emergent rather than fully articulated from the beginning; there is no agreement around decision criteria among the stakeholders; and even if they DID agree on the decision criteria it would still be difficult to rank the relative importance of each identified item.
Nevermind that there is often not enough information available to make the decision in the first place.
Or a common understanding of the problem to be solved.
Or, even with a common understanding of the problem to be solved, an agreement about how best to approach the solution.
You can see how it then becomes difficult to create project plans and time estimates.
- Is there a shared agreement and understanding of what needs to be done? Not just the desired end-result, but the steps it will take to get there?
- Is everyone clear on the scope of the activity during the time allotted? (Yes – even Agile projects have scope, if only during the sprint)
- Do you really have enough information to know how much time it will take someone to perform a task? Have they over or undersold their expertise? Assumed they would not run into problems? Account for other tasks and the task-switching cost? Accommodated the research and design time in their statement – not just the development time?
- Even within a PERT range – are you sure of your best case, worst case and probability?
- Are you aware of the entire environment that might impact the execution of that task? Not just organizational, but also that resource’s personal world?
Kailash’s observation –
…In an ambiguous situation, a good decision – whatever it might be – is most likely to be reached by a consultative process that synthesizes diverse viewpoints rather than by an individual or a clique. However, genuine participation … in such a process will occur only after participants’ fears have been addressed.
And those fears will only surface in a safe “holding environment.” If you have no idea what a stakeholder’s real concerns are, it is impossible to address them.
In my projects, I do my best to create those “holding environments” or safe zones – often with 1-on-1 conversations. And not just for politically important stakeholders. It also needs to happen for project team members. Maybe ESPECIALLY for project team members.
That way, we can get more accurate plans and time estimates.
It makes it easier to identify risks and resource constraints.
And it makes it easier to identify the fear points a team member may have around the success of the project.
- Are they concerned about how their job is going to change if the project is successful? Or if they will have a job at all at the end of it?
- Is the project replacing something they spent their career perfecting? Something they have taken ownership of and pride in?
- Are the activities they are being asked to perform in alignment with what they want to do? How does the project impact their career trajectory?
- Are they being asked to spend more time at work? How does this impact their personal life (what little of it is left)?
- Are they even being given the space to do this project? How much is on their plate already?
- Are they being set up to fail? What is the political climate?
All of these impact the quality and time it takes to perform tasks, the probability of meeting deadlines, and the overall success of the project.
The upshot of all this is that any approach to tackle ambiguity must begin by taking the concerns of individual stakeholders seriously. Unless this is done, it will be impossible for the group to coalesce around a consensus decision. Indeed, ambiguity-laden decisions in organisations invariably fail when they overlook concerns of specific stakeholder groups. The high failure rate of organisational change initiatives (60-70% according to this Deloitte report) is largely attributable to this point – Kailash Awati
Projects and project decisions are generally awash in ambiguity. If it wasn’t, you likely wouldn’t need a project manager.
As Kailash argues, if you recognize the existence of ambiguity and the attendant negative emotions it can bring up, you are more likely to make a sound decision.
Please read the entire blog post:
Kailash also wrote an interesting paper on Mapping Project Dialogues using IBIS Notation as a way of developing consensus and shared understanding. This is a technique I will be investigating further.