"...uncertainty does not necessarily need fixing. It is not just a primitive
form of certainty. It is a different animal."
David A. Schmaltz
One of my mentors, JR Clark, used to tell a story of a visit he made to
a Zen monastery. The monastery's master scolded him for his insatiable
need to "mess with things." The master suggested that it might be better
if JR just sat with things and let them teach him rather than constantly
trying to change them into something else. I think this is excellent advice
for project managers, too.
I watched this week a video tape of a presentation entitled Project
Management for Wicked Projects by Don Willerton of the Los Alamos National
Lab. Don has researched many of the most popular project management trainings,
methodologies, and approaches. His presentation rates them on their applicability
in conditions of uncertainty. Since Don works as a code physicist on research
software projects, his career has been centered around coping with uncertainty.
Not surprisingly, Don finds traditional project management approaches
inapplicable to what he does. Why? To paraphrase that Zen master, they
seem to have an insatiable need to "mess with things." Control is achieved
by creating a set of knowns (or as-ifs) and then managing as if these were
the project. I noticed that every technique carries vestiges of this assumption,
as if unknowns were in need of reform, as if "messing" with them would
Some strategies suggest tiny time boxes. Others focus upon second guessing
over inflated estimates, but each has its strategy for turning uncertainty
into something different. What each seem to miss is the possibility that
uncertainty does not necessarily need fixing. It is not just a primitive
form of certainty. It is a different animal.
I know that engineers are trained to pursue predictability as a foundation
for confidence. A system is known when it becomes predictable. This holds
true for all but unpredictable systems. These are known for their unpredictability.
In these situations, a different strategy must be embraced.
Don reported that in his career, most of his projects have done something
other than what he predicted they would do. He also reported that most
of his projects have been successful. They were not successful, as classic
project management strategies insist, because they turned out as he originally
expected them to turn out. They were successful because his confidence
was not dependent upon certainty but upon his ability to not mess with
the uncertainty. He could then respond to things as they really were, enlisting
himself and his customers in the endless, adaptive dance that makes us
not masters of predictability but masters of ourselves; and so masters
of our projects.
"You are the most powerful project management tool you will ever use."