How to plan for the unpredictable when managing projects

25 June 2019 -

Goldfish leaping out of bowlJane Elliott-Poxon, CMI moderator, explains how the people factor is crucial when managing projects in unpredictable environments

Essential learnings:

  • Challenge stakeholder views – empathetically
  • Throw out your usual approach
  • Build great relationships

When I think about project management, the metaphor coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins springs to mind: are you throwing rocks or birds? Both rocks and birds obey the laws of aerodynamics and physics. However, while you can calculate precisely how a rock will react when you throw it across a room, if you throw a live bird, you have no idea what will happen.

Managing complicated and complex projects including systems and cultures is very much like trying to throw birds. There are so many factors and elements involved that there is no simple way to predict the results. But there are ways in which we can improve our planning to manage that unpredictability effectively.

Challenge perspectives

On face value, writing and managing project requirements is quite a simple process. In reality, it can be difficult. The scope and boundaries have to be established, but also the relationships between the project and other projects, systems and sub systems, and emergent behaviours. Often, it’s the emergent behaviours that are difficult to predict.

Different stakeholders bring different perspectives, conflicting objectives, scope and boundaries to the table. We need identify what motivates and demotivates stakeholders, and challenge them where necessary. Unless they are an intelligent client, this can be challenging. However, it is essential if we are to plan the way forward and meet their desired outcomes. Use empathy, active listening and open questioning techniques (i.e. who, what, where, when, why and how) to persuade and influence your stakeholders. Influence others by highlighting the benefits of certain strategies, ideas and plans.

As a project manager, you need to be able to disseminate strategic and complex information regularly to different stakeholders. Ideally, you will be using face-to-face conversation to challenge stakeholder expectations, but tools such as email can be useful for getting tacit agreement on the requirements and scope of the project.

Challenge yourself

As a trained project professional your perception of reality tends to be constrained by a trained tendency to search for cues within the environment. You’re looking for ways to apply your appropriate skills from your personal tool kit. In other words, we all tend to gravitate thing we are good at, sometimes irrespective of the context.

Our preferred models can help us respond quickly and consistently to changes in the environment, but the application of models irrespective of context can limit the effectiveness of our performance; we subconsciously trade effectiveness for efficiency and familiarity. We can become blind to the limitations of some models. It is, therefore, always important to approach any project with an open mind. Ignore your preferred tool kit and examine the context in which you find yourself, then clarify your goal. Follow the Standard – appraise courses of action and decide on appropriate contingencies. Consider and scrutinise the outcome of the decisions you make.

Focus on your relationships

The effective interaction with all stakeholders within a project however small or large is becoming increasingly important. A project plan is important still, but unless our relationships with stakeholders are good, then we will face challenges along the way. Challenges can mean slippage.

With your skillset, you should be able to demonstrate effective interpersonal skills and assess their impact on others. Facilitate matrix working to support the delivery of organisational objectives.

Review best practice

In the age of the intelligent customer and client, good learning resources and CPD content can enable managers and leaders to move away from their reliance on a ‘weapon of choice’ within their skillset. They can ignore their preferred approach and examine the context they find themselves in.

These three are central to the success of any project. Overall, remember the focus is not on process, analysis and mathematics, but people.

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