This Guest paper, from which the following abstract has been drawn, was submitted for publication in November 2019, Part 1 published here February 2021.
It is copyright to Dr. Philip Crosby, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

Introduction | Study Approach and Methodology 
Balancing Enthusiasm with Realism | Checking for Relevant Lessons Learned
Embracing Complexity, Ambiguity and Uncertainty | Project Mission and Success Definition
Reporting and Decision-Making Policies and Structure | Project Information Control | PART 2

Embracing Complexity, Ambiguity and Uncertainty

This is Attitudinal Project Shaping #3

High-tech mega-projects are characterized by risk, complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty, not just related to technology, but introduced via multiple collaborative parties, and often a dispersed infrastructure. At start-up, uncertainty surrounds performance levels, objectives and motivations, capabilities, stakeholder expectations, and political environments.

High-tech mega-projects are always complicated, and (by adding uncertainty) almost always complex. Not only through the abundance of programmatic interfaces, but also because of the interactions between systems. Complex systems as understood in the contemporary sense are testing of management,[36] and have an inherent level of unpredictability.[37], [38]

Grasping this complexity, and preparing the project for it, demands early stage agile and adaptive management.[39] To respond strategically, project management will likely develop more than one (possibly several) management strategies,[40], [41] before down-selecting the final way forward. Thus project shaping is as much about keeping options open, as about trouble proofing.

Traditional project management practice as outlined in the Project Management Bodies of Knowledge (PMBOKs) applies a rational probability-based approach to management but is poorly equipped to deal with project uncertainty.[42] Atkinson, Crawford, & Ward all characterize uncertainty as the incompleteness of information,[43] a normal situation for early stage high-tech projects that requires tolerance from development teams and may only be mitigated by trust in management.

The early stages of R&D (high-tech) projects are dominated by long periods of ambiguity where solutions (and even problems) are unclear, possibly conflicting, and where change is incremental. There follows a short period of peripety,[44] where one solution (or a set of solutions) emerges as the obvious candidate for the way forward.[45]

In dealing with uncertainty, Smith invokes the pragmatic skills of "Project Craft" starting with uncertainty spotting and alerts the project manager not to delegate this to risk managers.[46] Smith implies that we pose the critical questions: are we confident in our assumptions, and if wrong, could the impact be serious? Moreover, he supports uncertainty workshops, by stating that "we must spot the potential frauds, and shake the tree to find out what is not secure".[47] However, fieldwork suggests that such analysis is rare, and was absent from the cases I investigated.

Based on the literature and casework, managers of high-tech projects can lift confidence by addressing ambiguity through careful preliminary research and by using new knowledge to improve sense-making and thus refine the way forward. Uncertainty can only be reduced by acquiring necessary information through explicit questions.[48]

Checking for Relevant Lessons Learned  Checking for Relevant Lessons Learned

36. Crosby, P. (2012a). Characteristics and techniques of successful high-technology project managers. International Journal of Project Organization and Management, 4(2).
37. Pavlak, A. (2004a). Project trouble-shooting. Journal of Project Management, 35(4), 5-14.
38. Miller, R., & Lessard, D. (2000). The strategic management of large engineering projects. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.
39. Shenhar, A. J., & Dvir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management: the diamond approach to successful growth and innovation. Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.
40. Crosby, P. (2006). Leadership roles in enterprise planning. Executive Engineer Supplement, IEAust, Canberra.
41. Pich, M. T., Loch, C. H., & De Mayer, A. (2002). On uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity in project management. Management Science, 48(8), 1008-1023.
42. Pender, S. (2001). Managing incomplete knowledge: Why risk management is not sufficient. International Journal of Project Management, 19, 79-87.
43. Atkinson, R., Crawford, L., & Ward, S. (2006). Fundamental uncertainties in projects and the scope of project management. International Journal of Project Management, 24(8), 687-988.
44. Peripety is a turn of events leading to cognitive transition from ambiguousness into a less daunting state of uncertainty and is often recalled at a time when real achievement occurred. It is not simply a change of fortune, but a change of understanding of all that has gone before, according to Smith, C., & Winter, W. (2010). The craft of project shaping, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 3(1), 46-60.
45. Engwall, M., & Westling, G. (2001). The peripety of projects. Working Paper 21, Fenix Research Program & Stockholm School of Economics.
46. Smith, C. (2007). Making sense of project realities, UK: Gower Publishing Ltd, Hampshire.
47. Ibid, p134.
48. Engwall, M., & Westling, G. (2001). The peripety of projects. Working Paper 21, Fenix Research Program & Stockholm School of Economics.
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page