How to Deal with Uncertainty in Project Planning
A project schedule is never static, and all estimates are subject to uncertainty. A schedule is made up of a series of tasks that must be completed in a predefined sequence.
However, if you have many projects in progress at the same time or overlap in time, having a longer-term strategy that considers how they interact is necessary. This is especially true if some activities take longer than others because you can’t start working until another task has been completed.
If you try to create such an ‘overall plan’ without any consideration for uncertainty then things will get complicated, very quickly.
In this blog article, we’ll look at what uncertainty looks like in project planning and the many forms it might take, as well as how to deal with it.
What is uncertainty in project management?
Uncertainty is when you lack the necessary information to make a decision. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and it poses a risk to your project’s success. It’s up to you as a project manager to ensure that you plan for uncertainty.
Zone of uncertainty in project management
The zone of uncertainty is the range of possible outcomes. For example, if there’s a 50% chance that you will deliver by February and a 90% chance that you will be done by April, then your zone of uncertainty is between February and March.
The zone of uncertainty is important to keep in mind because it can help you make decisions about your project. You should always be prepared for the best and worst-case scenarios.
For example, if you know that there’s a high chance that your project will finish on time but there’s also a small chance that it could take longer, then you should build some buffer into your schedule.
One of the most important tasks in project management is to identify uncertainty and map it out across your plan so that you can be prepared for what’s ahead in your project.
If there are changes, then be sure to update all of the downstream activities as well by updating dependencies between tasks. In this way, you can be sure that your team is always aware of the latest uncertainty and risk on your project.
Uncertainty takes many forms
The following are some of the most common sources of uncertainty:
- Changes in customer requirements
- Changes in technology
- Availability of resources
- Political and economic conditions
Changes in customer requirements
Changes in customer requirements are one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in project management. Customers often change their minds about what they want, when they want it, and how much they will pay for your product or service.
Changes in technology
Another typical source of uncertainty is technological change. For example, as a project progresses and new technologies are developed, it may not be possible to use the older versions for your product anymore. This uncertainty can result from any number of factors such as:
- New regulations that require upgraded equipment or processes;
- A change in industry standards;
- New technologies that are more effective or efficient than the ones you’re using.
Availability of resources
Sometimes uncertainty can also come from a lack of resources, such as:
- Insufficient skills within your team;
- A lack of funding to pay for specialized equipment and expertise.
Political and economic conditions
Economic uncertainty can also cause problems for your project. For example, if the country you’re doing business in experiences a recession, your customers may have less money to spend, or they may switch to cheaper products.
Political uncertainty can also affect your project. For instance, if there is a change in government it could result in new regulations that affect your project, or the government may decide to fund a rival project.
How uncertainty affects your project plan and what you can do!
Project uncertainty can cause your project plan to change in other ways as well. In this section, we will look at how uncertainty affects the project budget, schedule, team dynamics, and communication.
How uncertainty affects the Budget
The uncertainty in a cost estimate is determined by the range of possible outcomes and how likely you think each outcome is.
For example, if there are only two possibilities with costs at $100 or $200 then uncertainty would be great because it’s unclear what will happen.
However, if there are many possibilities with a wide range of costs then uncertainty is low because the chances are good that at least one of the outcomes will be within your estimated budget.
Here’s what you can do to account for uncertainty in your project budget:
- Estimate the cost of each outcome and then multiply that by the likelihood of it happening.
- Add a buffer to your budget to cover any unexpected costs.
How uncertainty affects the schedule
Your schedule is also affected by uncertainty. When you don’t know how long a task will take, it’s difficult to put an accurate estimate on the duration of your project. Uncertainty means that your schedule is at risk of change.
There are three ways that uncertainty can affect your schedule:
- uncertainty in task duration
- uncertainty in the task sequence
- uncertainty in dependencies between tasks
In addition, uncertainty can cause schedule changes when tasks are delayed or fast-tracked. What to do if your project falls behind schedule?
If your project falls behind schedule, there are a few things you can do:
- break down the remaining tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces;
- adjust the schedule to reflect the new reality;
- add resources to help you catch up.
How uncertainty affects Team Dynamics
When uncertainty is high, team members may become anxious and stressed. This can lead to tension within the team and a decrease in productivity. In addition, some members of the team may try to take on more responsibility to reduce the uncertainty they feel.
What to do if your team members are overwhelmed with uncertainty?
If you identify that some of your team members are feeling uncertain about their responsibilities, it’s important to ease the load. You can do this by:
- Give your team clearer job descriptions.
- Assign tasks based on skill sets or experience where possible.
- Offer training and development opportunities.
- Provide support and guidance.
How uncertainty affects communication
When there’s a lot of uncertainty in a project, it can be difficult to communicate effectively. This is because when people are anxious or stressed, they tend to become defensive and closed off. As a result, important information may not be shared with team members, which can lead to problems down the road.
What can you do to maintain effective communication in a project where there is uncertainty?
To keep your team informed and on the same page, you need to:
- Clarify expectations.
- Plan for regular updates.
- Reduce distractions.
How to reduce uncertainty
It’s unrealistic to expect uncertainty to be eradicated from your project plan. But there are ways to minimize the degree of uncertainty. Let’s say for example your project is to develop new software.
You can reduce the uncertainty by doing the following:
- Break the project into smaller tasks and milestones.
- Gather input from subject matter experts.
- Perform pilot tests.
- Building in contingency time buffers.
1. Break the project into smaller tasks and milestones.
For example, if you have a project to create a new website. Your initial plan might be something like this:
- Build the home page
- Create navigation menu
- Add a blog section to the site
However, this plan is very vague. You have no idea how long each of these tasks will take. So it’s not possible to estimate your project duration or completion date. Let’s break down this project into smaller milestones and tasks, which will help reduce the overall uncertainty.
- Build a wireframe for your home page
- Create an HTML template for your main navigation menu
- Add blog functionality to the site based on client requirements
This plan is much more detailed and specific, so it’s easier to estimate how long each task might take. This gives you a better idea of how long your project will take.
2. Gather input from subject matter experts
If you’re working on a software development project to create new features, ask for client feedback early in the process. This can help reduce uncertainty throughout your project’s duration.
For example, asking clients what their top priority features are at the beginning of a project will give you a good idea of what to build first.
3. Perform pilot tests
You can reduce project uncertainty by testing your deliverables early on with real users. This will help identify any issues or problems before they become bigger problems during the main project phase, which saves time and money in the long run.
4. Building in contingency time buffers
No matter how well you plan, there will always be some degree of uncertainty in your project. This is especially true for projects with tight deadlines.
To account for this, it’s important to build contingency time buffers into your project plan. This will help ensure that your team isn’t rushed and stressed out trying to meet a deadline they know is unrealistic.
Summary of section
Breaking your project into smaller tasks, gathering input from subject matter experts, performing pilot tests, and building in contingency time buffers are all techniques that can help reduce the effects of uncertainty on your project. By using these techniques, you’ll be able to deliver a successful project despite the inevitable surprises that come up during planning and execution.
Consider the following ideas to help you deal with uncertainty while preparing a project:
- Assess uncertainty early on, if possible. If you are working closely with your customer or team members, they may already have some information to share about what is uncertain and how it will affect their work tasks. You should also ask them for their input on how uncertainty can be dealt with.
- Include uncertainty in your project schedule so that you know what to expect when uncertainty happens, and how long it will take for uncertainty to resolve itself. For example, if tasks are on hold due to a lack of information or resources, you should allow time buffers between each task while the work is delayed. This will help you to create a realistic schedule.
- Include uncertainty in your project budget so that you know what the potential cost implications are if uncertainty causes changes in work tasks or resource requirements for your project. This will help you determine how much flexibility is available within the overall budget based on any uncertainty that may happen during the planning and execution of your project plan.
- Use risk management techniques to help you understand and manage uncertainty. For example, create a risk register that documents all of the risks in your project, including those related to uncertainty. This will help you track potential impacts on your schedule and budget as the project progresses.
Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of project planning. However, by following the suggestions above, you can reduce the impact that uncertainty has on your project’s duration and budget. By assessing and managing risk, building contingency time buffers into your schedule, and including uncertainty in your project plan, you can ensure that your team stays on track despite the unknowns.