Uncertainty in Project Management

Last month I had the pleasure of joining the Delivery Club in Central London. It’s the brainchild of Donnie MacNicol where senior project management delivery practitioners are invited to attend and collectively – learn, share and work towards putting something back into the project management profession.

I’m not senior delivery practitioner so was honoured to be invited to take part in the Club discussions.

I’m glad I was because the session delivered by David Wilkinson, who is the Editor of the Oxford Review, was focused on uncertainty.

Uncertainty has become a word closely associated to project management (it forms the U in VUCA), a noun frequently used in response to how fast the world is changing and as a result, the programmes and projects worked on become increasingly complex and complicated. There’s a lot more uncertainty and unpredictability in what and how projects are being delivered.

Because of this – uncertainty as a topic is worth exploring if you’re currently working in project management. In the session at the Delivery Club the focus was our response as individuals and organisations to uncertainty. So that’s your response and the team members that work with you and the wider business.

Here are some of the insights from the session:

Normal to New States

Imagine for a minute that you’re the Project Manager and you’re happily working on your project with your team and everything is just hunky-dory.

Then there’s a problem*.

One of your suppliers has just informed you that they can’t deliver that crucial bit of software they’re developing at the time you agreed and need it by. It’s really going to affect the project go-live date.

You’ve got a couple of choices, three in fact.

One, no matter what solutions are proposed to get around it, nothing is going to work out.

Two, you work on solving the problem to get back to normal.

Three, you come up with a completely new and novel way to solve the problem – not getting “back to normal” but something that’s a game changer, something that really changes the whole project.

We’re moving from a normal state to a completely new state.

The interesting thing here is – how many of us can work towards a new state when trying to solve problems and how many in project management will work tirelessly on option two?

*When a problem crops up, we’ve often missed a lot of the symptoms of the problem before it became apparent we had a problem. Just like with an illness, we see symptoms first – they pre-date the problem. As a Project Manager are you aware of the symptoms?


Our Emotional Response to Uncertainty

When we are in situations which are full of uncertainty, as individuals – and as collective teams – we have different responses to it.


The natural reaction for many people in project management is to want to get in there and sort it out. It’s what project people do – it’s what they’re there for. This fall back position of controlling the project naturally kicks in.

There is, however, a further reaction beyond that where some individuals naturally want to test that uncertainty, play around with it, see where they can go with it. It’s these individuals that you could say an organisation would be interested in having around if uncertainty is now part of the business landscape.

Uncertainty and Emotional Resilience

Take a look at the next diagram.

This is all about the emotional response to uncertainty. Uncertainty is contextual – it depends where, when and how we are experiencing uncertainty that dictates the kind of response we will have to it.

Most people don’t naturally like uncertainty – the unknown unknowns or our basic hierarchy of needs not being met.

When each person reacts to uncertainty they are reacting to the behaviours that are seen as a result of uncertainty. That could be behaviours from any number of people in and around the project – senior managers, customers, members of the public.

Look at the diagram in relation to the organisation.

Emotional resilience is all about our ability to adapt and cope with stressful or even just new situations. Where a low-level emotional resilience is needed because there is a low or non-existent level of uncertainty, this is the Zone of Stasis. This is where everything is in balance, a state of equilibrium – I guess a place of calm and the business just getting on with what it’s doing without too much unmanageable or complex changes going on.

Increase the levels of uncertainty in an organisation which has been cruising for a while and the resilience of the organisation has never really been tested – that’s when the negative adrenalin kicks in and panic ensues. The organisation is suddenly in the F-Zone.

The Play Zone is the place to be if you’re the kind of person that thrives on uncertainty. You’re one of the people who likes to test it, play with it. The kind of person that organisations want to have around when the status quo needs a kick, or when the F-Zone has ruled the roost for just too long– when new ideas and strategies are needed to push an organisation on.

The interesting thing here is the organisation only wants these people for so long. At some point, the playtime is over and the organisation needs to move into the New World Zone of Stasis. Coming out of uncertainty into a new world of operating. The higher emotional resilience still needed as the organisation adapts to the new world.


I took several things away with me from this session.

With project management, we need to think about uncertainty on two levels. One in terms of the people who work in and around the projects and the second in terms of the organisation. People have different emotional responses to uncertainty and it’s useful to recognise who’s reacting and in what way – what are their behaviours telling us? Is this another aspect to stakeholder management?

With the organisation – is that resilience too? Can the strategy and the resulting programmes and projects really have a chance of success if the organisation can’t deal with uncertainty appropriately?

Further questions too – is emotional resilience something that should talked about in terms of a project manager’s skillset? How do we find out about someone’s emotional resilience – what would we expect to see demonstrating that in a project manager’s work?

Who are these people who like playing in the Play Zone? Are they external consultants? Do they already exist in an organisation – what are they called and what do they do all day?

Will project managers be able to test uncertainty – will they be empowered to test it, even if it means something fails?

All interesting stuff and another example of how project management continues to fascinate and intrigue. What a great job it is.




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