In project management, even if you’re a talented and experienced project manager, you definitely know you can’t control everything. Uncertainties can concern both internal factors, such as cost, time, and scope issues, and external ones, such as economic crises, illnesses, and different kinds of restrictions caused by these phenomena. Making decisions in an uncertain environment is an essential part of not only a project manager’s work, but also the project team’s duties. So, let’s take this issue point by point to be in the know how to fight uncertainty.

Uncertainty and Risk: Are They the Same?

Did you know that 32% of project managers misinterpret risks as uncertainties? It has been revealed as a result of the study conducted by the Project Management Institute. Many people, even being experts in the field, rather often get confused by these terms and use them as synonyms. But are they the same? Definitely not. Let’s analyze them and distinguish the difference.

Risk in Project Management 

Risk is an unpredicted action or event that can lead to either positive or negative consequences. There are unknown and known types of risk. The first type is the one you couldn’t predict, and the known risk is the one you could reveal at the stage of identifying project risks. 

For example, your business partner suggests that you invest in the development of a plant, providing all the necessary information. You assess risks and make a decision whether it’s worth your investment.

Uncertainty in Project Management

Uncertainty is associated with the lack of necessary information. In other words, it’s the absence of clarity and certainty. 

“We are drowned in oceans of data; nevertheless, it seems as if we seldom have sufficient information”, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt.

As distinct from risk, where a result can be predicted, here the background is absent, so it’s impossible to identify or guess the outcome. 

The example can be similar to the above mentioned one, but the difference is that your potential partner doesn’t give you all the information you need to know to make your decision. So, you have to act in terms of uncertainty. 

Researchers distinguish between the following types of uncertainty in project management: the ones related to project estimating, the ones associated with project parties, and uncertainty associated with stages of the project life cycle. The latter implies that project uncertainties depend on the life cycle stage and vary within it.

The Difference

So, what are the opposing characteristics of risk and uncertainty?

  • Risks provide you with an opportunity to foresee the probable outcome of an event or a decision, while in a situation of uncertainty it’s almost impossible, though uncertainties can bring a positive outcome as a result.
  • When running your projects, you can manage risks, while the majority of the uncertainties are unmanageable. On the other hand, you can detect them early and respond to them on time to save the project.
  • When planning a project, you can identify and assess risks, and you cannot do the same with uncertainties. 

Causes of Uncertainty in Projects

Any project is based on estimates, which in its core is definitely associated with uncertainties. Before initiating a project, any project manager estimates the scope of work and then the schedule. It, in turn, consists of tasks that should be completed by a project team. But how can we know how much time exactly it will take to finish the task, and then the whole project? How do we know whether the flow will be even without any unpredicted things that may affect the project? Unfortunately, we can’t. But we can keep in mind the kinds of uncertainties every project faces. Let’s consider them below.

Scope Uncertainty

Uncertainties associated with project scope involve the inability to estimate the whole project itself, with all its peculiarities and requirements. 

Work Amount Uncertainty

Uncertainties related to the amount of work within the project scope include the lack of knowledge of how much work should be done to complete the project. 

Unexpected Internal Events

You can’t predict that somebody of your project team will fall ill or break one of the instruments needed to finish the work.

Unexpected External Events

Any project is not immune from unexpected things that may happen on the way to its completion: whether it’s the wrong number of ordered goods or bad weather conditions that don’t let your team complete the task. 

Tips to Deal with Uncertainty

When managing projects, one of the most significant things you should keep in mind is the fact you can’t fully eliminate uncertainties. So you can just reduce it by dividing your projects into tasks, and these tasks into more minor ones, because smaller things are more easy to control and manage. 

At the same time, if you have to deal with uncertainties anyway, the only way out is to learn how to cope with them:

  • Don’t waste your time on scheduling. Just set up clear priorities. Scheduling without priorities won’t bring any success as any plan prone to uncertainties. And in case something goes wrong, just remake prioritization instead of full project rescheduling.                                                                                                                      “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities”, Stephen Covey. 
  • Make realistic and smart estimates. Pay attention not to the task duration but dwell upon effort estimates if you want to save your project time. That’s why the amount of work is more important than the amount of time a task takes, which in turn, is much more difficult to estimate.
  • Forget about task due dates. The only way to beat Parkinson’s Law and Student Syndrome is to deliver a project as soon as possible and not to miss a deadline.      As Dr. Goldratt mentioned, “It is not important to finish each task on time. It is essential to finish each project on time”
  • Protect your project due dates by adding some buffer. Forget about adding it to project tasks because you won’t ever get rid of Student Syndrome or Parkinson’s Law effects. The safety that is added to each task is ineffective, as project due date is what really matters. And this safety put into the task will make your task execution longer and also prone to the above-mentioned effects. Be guided by the rule: leave your project in better shape for your colleagues, which means don’t consume the project buffer but save it for emergencies (Murphy’s law works anyway: everything that can go wrong will go wrong).
  • Manage your resources carefully and properly. In case of some constraints and lack of resources, you can assign an employee from another department to an urgent task.
  • Control your workflow by considering your team members’ tasks and progress. Avoid bad multitasking. An overloaded employee is 2 times worse than an idle one. 

How Epicflow Copes with Project Uncertainties 

As has already been said, uncertainty appears as a result of the lack of necessary information. To cope with it, you’ll definitely need reliable software that can help you not only manage risks but also deal with uncertainties. How? First, by providing all the required project data.

Epicflow focuses on the current situation and expectations. The tool gives us the following information about any project we’re dealing with at the moment:

  • Pipeline for the real-time project and team performance control and monitoring constraints
  • Tasklist for the real-time insight into current projects and the tasks within them sorted by priority
  • Historical Load Graph lets you analyze your previous flow and output to learn lessons and for better planning
  • Future Load Graph or What-if Analysis, where you can see your workflow long in the future affected by any decisions you’d like to make
  • Dashboard, and Bubble Graph particularly, to let you take a look at the structure of projects, the time and budget constraints.

Now let’s explore how exactly Epicflow can protect your projects against uncertainties starting from macro and finishing with micro-level.

Pipeline: Dealing with Uncertainty on the Macro-Level

Project Buffer to Protect Your Due Dates

To cope with uncertainty, in Epicflow, we add a buffer to protect major milestones and the due date instead of hiding buffers in task estimations. 

It protects a project from failures in a better way, because every team member will then use it more properly. In such a way, Student Syndrome and Parkinson’s Law effects can be also eliminated and the project will anyway have some safety to be protected against Murphy’s Law. 

That’s easily explained by the fact that when adding a buffer to every task, a person responsible for it will procrastinate and start working on it as late as possible. And your due dates are reliably protected against unexpected uncertainties.

Take a look at the picture below. In Epicflow, everything is clearly expressed in Pipeline with corresponding colors. Red means a project can hardly cope with uncertainties, yellow demonstrates danger, while blue and green mean projects are quite fine and have enough capacity to cope with unexpected changes. As you can see, Project 3 (the first one in the list) needs direct management attention, which is a real constraint. You can move your milestones manually to check if these actions bring positive changes to the project state. 

Resource Buffer to Protect Supply & Demand Changes

Use not only project but also resource buffers. In an uncertain environment, one of the main tasks is to control employees’ load and not to let them get overloaded. Proper resource management is a good way to overcome uncertainty issues in your projects. 

You can get a clear overview of what your employees are busy with at any moment of time to be sure of the effectiveness of the project flow. 

Besides, in the Historical Load graph, you can also check your teams’ workload and the way they coped with their duties in the past to analyze the situation and take proper actions to fight with uncertainties in the future.

The construction field cannot have any buffer as compared with assembly, for instance. But they can help each other. Instead of hiring another employee, you can substitute a worker from one group with another employee from another group if it’s possible. Another way is training an employee to perform a different kind of work. Anyway, it’s less time and money consuming for a company than hiring a new employee. In fact, hiring a new worker costs a company $4,129 according to the Human Capital Benchmarking Report.

From Macro to Micro Level

Gantt Chart

In Epicflow, you can easily have an overview of all your projects and choose one to analyze it in detail. It’s quite obvious that in every project, some tasks have more room for uncertainty than others. The dashed area in the picture denotes the room for uncertainty, so you can control every task in an absolutely easy way. 

Task List

This instrument is a map of your team’s duties. It has the following peculiarities that will help you directly or indirectly cope with uncertainties:

  • In the Task List, all tasks are ordered according to priorities, and not the scheduled dates.
  • The task on top is the most constraining one, it can handle the least uncertainty. That’s why Epicflow users are guided by the rule: complete the top task asap so that one can start executing the next one. In such a way, we get rid of bad multitasking, Parkinson’s law and Student syndrome effects.
  • Task List is available for every team member, so they all know what’s important at the moment.
  • Task List operates in a real-time environment. So if uncertainty happens because of scope changes, illness, or something else, it is immediately reflected in prioritization. And you can take action now before it contaminates your project.
  • Your plan and its execution are resilient to uncertainty.

Fine Tuning

  • Some projects have more uncertainty than others (e.g., an R&D project with the application of new techniques). So you can define different risk factors for every project.
  • Some resource groups have higher risk factors than others (e.g. engineering can have higher risk factors than construction), so you can define different risk factors for every group.
  • The algorithms take both risk buffers into account and prioritize in such a way that all projects have the same chance to meet their due dates. 

We respond to any kind of change by the automatic prioritization changing. Instead of the necessity to replan everything, Epicflow calculates everything and just changes priorities. So, you don’t have to be afraid of any unpredicted project changes.

Plan your project flow realistically. You can check it by applying What-if analysis (Future Load Graph). You can’t predict the future but you can change it.

And what’s also important is that if you’re currently using another PM tool like Jira, MS Project, Primavera or any other software, you don’t have to care about your data, Epicflow is easily integrated with most existent project-management solutions. 

You can’t predict, avoid, or beat uncertainty, but you can manage it. The work in the project management field involves facing uncertainties in any case, so you have to deal with learning how to cope with them. 

Do you have any tips for managing uncertainties? Or are you still trying to predict the unpredictable?