How to Manage Project Uncertainty Better


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Do you want to be the Sherlock Holmes of project management? Let’s look at three ways to manage project uncertainty better. We find these aspects of uncertainty in the PMBOK® Guide, Seventh Edition – ambiguity, complexity, and volatility.

Project managers walk into the unknown with each new project. You may be unsure about numerous factors including but not limited to:

  • User requirements
  • Team dynamics
  • External events such as natural disasters or new political policies
  • Changes in market conditions
  • Technical issues
  • Cost of materials
  • Availability of skilled resources
  • Scope creep

These unknowns create uncertainty. No wonder project managers find it difficult to estimate the schedule and budget.

When you watch a movie, there is typically an individual with a problem. The plot thickens over time, creating tension. And it’s this tension that keeps you engaged to see how things unfold.

Projects are like movies. An individual, a group, or an organization has a problem (or opportunity). Guess who solves the problem (or seizes the opportunity)? Yes, it’s you, the project manager who acts like a detective. Your project sponsor and stakeholders are watching how you solve the mystery and achieve the project objectives. Let's look at three ways to manage uncertainty better.

1. Reduce Ambiguity

First, reduce ambiguity. Your project may be interpreted in various ways. Interview your key stakeholders to uncover the different perspectives of the project. The project sponsor can develop an elevator speech and describe the project using:

  • Project name
  • Problems to be solved (or opportunities to be seized)
  • How the project team will solve the problems (seize the opportunities)
  • Specific, measurable goals

Project Performance Domains

Uncertainty is one of the eight Project Performance Domains listed in the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition:

  1. Stakeholders
  2. Team
  3. Development Approach and Life Cycle
  4. Planning
  5. Project Work
  6. Delivery
  7. Measurement
  8. Uncertainty

2. Reduce Complexity

Second, look for ways to reduce complexity. For example, a project team may analyze a complex business process by defining the normal sequence of steps, exceptions, and alternate paths. What are the non-value-added steps that may be eliminated? Furthermore, how can we simplify the process?

3. Consider Volatility

Lastly, let’s consider volatility. Some projects contain variables that change rapidly. Imagine a project that requires fuel. Fuel prices may rise quickly. How can we manage this volatility? The project manager can develop contingency reserves.

Additional Tip: Use Multiple Perspectives

There’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes could always solve each mystery. He viewed each case from a wide range of perspectives. So should you. Engage your stakeholders to gain their perspectives. Consider the individual risks plus ambiguity, complexity, and volatility.

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