Project management: How to cope with massive uncertainty and get stuff done

How do you plan for anything anymore? Four experts give us their views.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

For execs charged with plotting a path for their teams and organisations in these deeply abnormal times, what's the best way to manage uncertainty? How do you plan for anything anymore and, if so, how? Four experts give us their best-practice tips.

1. Set the right long-term priorities for your team

Joe Soule, CTO at Capital One Europe, says success at dealing with a crisis is less about the particular events that take place and more about the shape of the business that you take into the crisis to begin with: he says the important thing Capital One has done is to always prepare for change and uncertainty.

"It would have been tough if I'd gone into this delivering five really big projects for the organisation that were all predicated on the view of the world in 2019. But I didn't. Our 60 agile teams each had a backlog of roughly three sprint's worth of refined work against the investment plan for the year, which was more about capacity than anything else," he says.

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When the lockdown started, the agile tech teams in the bank were able to address the challenges the business faced. The broader agenda paused rather than radically pivoted because the IT team's work for the business is goals- rather than feature-orientated.

"Teams were attached to the outcomes they were creating for the customer," he says. "Largely speaking, those goals haven't changed all that much – the overarching imperatives have stood the test of time. And in standing the test of time, most people's objectives are still engaged with solving those types of problems."

2. Use scenario planning to prepare for many different futures

Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at recruiter Harvey Nash, says it's worth remembering that the coronavirus pandemic isn't the only challenge that business leaders face: "We've entered an era where everything is uncertain, whether it's Brexit, COVID or climate change."

One great tool that can help, says Haake, is scenario planning, which is a strategic method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans by developing stories about how the future might unfold and how this might affect an issue that confronts them. "But don't just plan for two or three scenarios, plan for nine or 10," says Haake.

She says the good news for executives involved in such planning exercises is that the technology and human-resourcing models that can help businesses cope with these different scenarios have now shifted to allow for more flexibility. 

While the future is uncertain, business leaders can use this flexibility to help them deal with unforeseeable events.

"Things like software as a service and licences in terms of technology can often be easily scaled up and down according to the user base if businesses want to grow or shrink," she says. "Resourcing models are also shifting to statements of work and outcome-based arrangements, which avoids the need to hire permanently in great numbers."

3. Build strong foundations to support an agile attitude

Steve Otto, CTO at The R&A, which is golf's governing body, says businesses should find a balance between two key attributes: strong foundations and agile attitudes.

"Coping with uncertainty is a combination of those two things that may seem contradictory. You've got to have a really firm base – you've got to have a really good foundation, but you've also got to have the ability and the mental aptitude for being agile," says Otto.

His team's ability to react quickly to fast-changing conditions was put to the test earlier this year. Otto and his colleagues used a combination of data and video to create a virtual tournament of golfing greats from the past 50 years in just three months. 

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"I think sometimes people can think of agility as just meaning you can flip from this project to that, but it's actually about having a firm base. So when there's a request for more data, it's actually there – and then you can be agile. I don't think you want to be just re-imagining yourself constantly," he says.

4. Use your experience to help the rest of the business adapt

Steve Bates, principal at consultant KPMG, also recognises the need for agility and says this requirement has gone mainstream. We're at a point now that the whole enterprise – not just the IT department – has to be adaptive and agile.

"And that's going to take time; you can't just do that overnight. What you're going to see is the tendency for large-scale, long-term investments to be broken into smaller chunks. That allows IT and the business to work together to demonstrate quick value and then assess continuously if they're on the right track," he says.

Bates says the future in tech is likely to be about fewer multi-year investments in platform technology: "I think business and IT both want quick, modular services, and then continuous assessment and alignment of both the market and the condition of the technology estate. I think over-planning would be a mistake; doing small horizons is probably better."

For IT, that's not a big deal – that's simply an agile way of working that most organisations have already embraced. But for the rest of the business, the impact of that shift is significant. Bates says non-IT executives traditionally look to line up capital and then execute on it. Now, the trend will be to invest in smaller chunks because of macro-economic volatility.

IT leaders should use their hard-worn experience in digital transformation to help the rest of the business cope with uncertainty: "I think CIOs have a built-in advantage in that change has always been a constant in IT – it's just simply the nature of working in technology. The IT organisation is well positioned to help the business adopt more of these practices."

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