A machine for coping with uncertainty

Anyone with any experience of projects knows one thing is certain – however great the project team, however detailed the plans, no matter how much support there is – things will happen that are not expected.  All projects operate, to a greater or lesser extent, in environments of uncertainty.

We have seen great project leaders work hard to prepare their teams for uncertainty.  They build in extra time to the project plan to allow for unexpected events; the team will be tested through scenario planning and learn to cope with the additional pressure that is felt when things don’t go to plan; there will be a forecast of when the periods of uncertainty are expected; and the team will be built with ‘surge capacity’ to take account of periods of additional work.

What the project leader is doing in making these preparations, is building ‘a machine for coping with uncertainty’.  We have taken this phrase from Don Redelmeier – you can read about him in Michael Lewis’ book ‘The undoing project’.  Redelmeier was talking about his approach to developing working practices in the Canadian trauma centre where he worked.  He believed the hospital needed to become ‘a machine for coping with uncertainty’.  “Wherever there is uncertainty there has got to be judgment,” said Redelmeier, “and wherever there is judgment there is an opportunity for human fallibility.”  And we know there is plenty of judgement needed in a project environment too, so build your project team into a machine for coping with uncertainty.

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