In a complex system, nothing is certain because it becomes impossible to predict all the occurrences and interactions among the occurrences and the things they affect. Projects are complex systems. In complicated systems, such as airplanes and other mechanical devices, in which there is a high likelihood that an event will result in the same outcome time after time, under consistent conditions. In complex systems people, as opposed to machines, are unpredictable. Moods change, fatigue sets in, there are political issues, and other conditions that effect the way people respond and react.

To think that you and your team of planners can predict the outcome of a project with 100% accuracy is delusional.

As you plan your project, you define objectives, requirements and deliverables, identify the tasks and resources required to achieve them, schedule and budget. Each of these is subject to change. As objectives change the effect ripples through every aspect of the plan. As resource availability or the schedule changes, that may cause key stakeholders to change objectives.

For example, an objective might have been to implement a new business procedure by a certain date. The plan to achieve that objective called for the availability of a given number of resources of a given quality for a given period of time. The project plan was accepted and published and the project began to be executed. During the execution, the project schedule slipped so that the planned availability of the resources was no longer possible because they were dedicated to other, higher priority work. As a result the objective had to be reassessed and changed, not only to adjust the date but also to change other objectives (e.g., reduction in scope to enable some of the project to be delivered in the original time frame) in light of the schedule change and the resulting change in resource availabilities. In some cases a change such as this could result in the project’s cancellation or postponement.

As you plan, you engage the right stakeholders at the right time to make sure the plan is covering all the things it should cover and to get the buy-in you need to assure adherence to the plan. Note that the commitment and opinions of the stakeholders are subject to change. A functional manager may agree to a resource assignment one day and a day later may reverse his or her decision, for any number of reasons.

Throughout the planning process you, consciously or unconsciously make assumptions. If you are conscious of your assumptions, you identify, assess and plan for risks and uncertainties.


As you engage the stakeholders, you do well to regularly remind everyone, including yourself, that the plan is subject to change. Remind them formally, in writing, and make it a preface to every published expression of the plan. For example, put a statement like

“The following schedule is subject to change resulting from changes to the availability of resources, weather delays, changed requirements and other factors that cannot be fully predicted at this time. Changes will be monitored and reported as the project proceeds to manage expectations.”

In addition to formal statements, make it a practice to informally remind everyone of the likelihood, or at least the possibility of change. As you make commitments and expose your plan to a wider audience than the planners, make it clear that uncertainty is the only certainty and that you are ready for it.


Why would it be necessary to remind people of the obvious reality that there will be change? Because many, if not most, people want certainty. Like the ostrich, they will bury their head in the ground to avoid the reality of uncertainty. People want to be able to tell their bosses and clients that objectives will be met, targets hit and deliverables delivered for a predicted cost. They do not want to include contingency reserves that announce to the world that there is uncertainty regarding the schedule and budget. They do not want to admit that objectives and requirements can change or that resources may not be of the expected quality and quantity.


To make matters even more complex, many people, project managers included, do not want to admit that they have changed their mind or might do so in the future. W. Somerset Maugham, the English writer and physician pointed this out when he wrote about the bishop of Blackstone, who “had the great idea that one should stick towhateveronehadbegun:

“Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind.”

We have seen this attitude operate in politics, when someone who changes their mind is called a “flip flopper.” In projects it takes the form of people who are unwilling to change their plans, even in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence thattheplansarefatallyflawed.

Even those who know better are often effected by this attitude. They may fear being branded a flip flopper or being seen as unreliable because they change their plans and no longer adhere to commitments to dates or budgets that they made in the past and that are now impossible to fulfill. They may unskillfully pad their estimates or simply not admit that they will be late or over budget until it is too late to do anything but accept the reality of a late delivery of budget overrun.


It is best to be realistic. When planning at the beginning of the project and revising the plan during the execution make the plan as accurate a prediction of the project outcome aspossible.Manageassumptionsandrisks.

In the face of sponsors and clients who want certainty, hold firm, as much as you can, to the position that there is uncertainty. At the same time, present a plan that has an end date and budget amount that are not likely to be overrun. Be conscious of your assumptions and apply risk analysis to come up with scenarios that include best, most likely and worst case possibilities.

Educate all stakeholders to the reality that, when it comes to projects, the only certainty is uncertainty. Be ready for it and continuously remind everyone about it.

By  George Pitagorsky

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