IPMA International Project Management Association
23 February 2018 / 6:57

Managing the unforeseeable

Projects per definition are unique. However, we try to extensively plan something which we never – at least partly – experienced before. Against overwhelming odds, we are very often optimistic that the plan “is true” and we spend a lot of energy to align reality with plan.

In Project Management we have professionally established disciplines like Project Planning and Risk Management and we still aim to optimize these disciplines. Herewith we hope to eliminate unforeseeable events or at least control them. We have established agile management to faster react on all kind of changes but the unforeseeable still exists and challenges us to be able to decide and act if something unforeseeable occurs.

In 2016 German Project Management association has published an expertise-study “Umgang mit Ungewissheit in Projekten” (“Dealing with the unforeseeable within projects”). Herein the authors illuminate the as-of state in science and in consulting practice how to decide and act when unforeseeable events occur. In addition, three research workshops were held in DACH and since 2017 the topic “unforeseeable occurrences”  is a stream of the regular yearly German PM forum. However, the topic stagnates and there is no concrete progress in the PM community since 2016.

At a first glance, that is irritating especially considering that Project Management is set up to handle unique initiatives. It is my assumption that some of the messages of the expertise-study are challenging. Handling unforeseeable events needs holistic approaches which incorporate our body and are based on personal safety which lies beyond of “being in control of a situation”.  That implies that there is a clear need for a cultural changes, our body and our intuition have to gain a significant role in professional settings. And it needs a culture where “being out of control” and” letting things go” is part of the game. This is a significant change and a real challenge as we have to change our beliefs – at least in western culture where we are very proud about our analytics and our reasoned intellect. In addition to the need of a cultural change, there is a second inconvenient message: The authors of the expertise study did not find any concrete, out-of-the-box tool which could be easily and with low effort implemented to simplify the life of project managers and teams.

No matter how hard to achieve, being able to decide and act in projects when the unforeseeable occurs is a mission-critical meta-competence. This is so much more important when we consider that the increasing technology is one main cause for unforeseeable occurrences. Thus our expectation that technology will eliminate volatility is a misbelief.

We very often assume that successfully dealing with unforeseeable events is a talent. In contrast – and this is the very good message -, the expertise-study highlights that the necessary competencies can be trained and cultivated to adequately prepare project teams for the occurrence of the unforeseeable.

As project managers we will be in the driver seat for digitalization. Projects will be set up to introduce new technologies. Thus we need to prepare ourselves to handle unforeseeable situations. And we have a social responsibility to prepare society for the necessary cultural changes.

Does that mean that we need a new Project Management discipline “Managing the Unforeseeable”? My opinion is “YES” but the term “managing” should not only be seen as “being in control” but also as being able “to act and decide beyond control” and “to let go control”.

To accept the need for a new PM discipline, it might be a helpful attitude to make ourselves aware that “the unforeseeable” should not be seen as a risk to fail but as a chance to adapt project objectives to what is really needed.

1 Comment

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Astrid about the need for a change of perspective.I also agree that it requires a shift in culture. I think large parts of the industry accept the intellectual sense of the argument but are still unable to bring themselves to welcome the kind of experimentation she is advocating. David Hillson and Ruth Murray-Webster’s work on risk appetite and risk attitude could be a useful starting point for helping organizations tackle chronic uncertainty avoidance.

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Astrid Kuhlmey

Author of this post

For more than 30 years Astrid Kuhlmey worked as a manager in project and line organization in the German industry. Between 1999 and 2014 she furthermore established and led several global project (management) offices before she has established her own consulting business. Today she supports companies in setting up and implementing change processes and change projects. Her background is a diploma in Computer Science and educations in mediation, project management and systemic therapy. Astrid is foundation member of the Project Management Offices GPM professional group in Germany (FG PMO) and coauthor of the expertise-study “Umgang mit Ungewissheit in Projekten”. Together with her colleague Matthias Winnig they have developed their own approach to foster competencies to deal with unforeseeable situations and to empower teams and individuals to be flexible and to feel safe at the same time (sicher-durch-veraenderung).