Nothing Is Certain But Uncertainty; Here's How To Manage It In Your Business

I was visiting with longtime friend and colleague Ron Evans of the Hybrid Group on a recent trip to Los Angeles. Evans runs a small shop of dedicated developers out of Coloft, a coworking space located in tech trendy Santa Monica, Calif. Although the Hybrid Group bills themselves as developer guns-for-hire with a particular penchant for start-ups, Ruby on Rails, and cloud computing, they recently realized their own tools could add value to others, so they started building products. They also realized that products were a path to scalable revenue, and perhaps acquisition.

When discussing Hybrid Group's latest project, Kanban Pad, a project-management tool, Evans made a comment that prompted this post. He said, "You need to worry about what you are doing right now. These days, you can't know what will happen next week. Everything is uncertain."

That statement echoed solidly, eventually achieving an eerie resonance with debt ceiling battle that recently ended in Washington. As a scenario planner, I express my concern about uncertainty all of the time. I find it the unarticulated underpinning of many a failed strategy. Arrogance or ignorance often substitute for truth as individuals, and eventually the organizations they work for assign value to an attribute of the future for which no meaningful forecast could exist. But when I say "everything is uncertain," I am usually talking about large events, some that may be somewhat near term, but most which exist on the scale of years, if not decades: economics, demographics, and the politics of China are common examples.

Although I have rarely seen a project plan of any complexity that actually reflects its eventual execution profile, most project plans end up being presented as correct. And for program managers, as for futurists, "they are never wrong today."

What Evans proposes is a more honest approach: Just tell people you don’t know what is going to happen next week. That is different from telling people you don’t know what you intend to do next week. It is fine to share intent, but that intent needs to be couched with uncertainty—and those using this thinking process should not be vague, but precise. They should say what they are uncertain about.

Years ago, I worked on a Product Data Management system for a large aerospace firm. Part of the project was to create a complete lifecycle management system with workflows that started the first moment a procurement officer or anyone else started a conversation about a potential contract. They wanted to track everything in precise detail, all the way through custom engineering. And customer engineering proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the project. We could model the acquisition and negotiation part of a contract. We could model the delivery of a program. What we couldn’t model was the work required to create the system, regardless of if it was hardware or software. Why? Because we weren’t exactly sure how to make what the customer was asking for. We had uncertainty. The workflow failed the minute the level of abstraction went to something like "design ASIC," or Application Specific Integrated Circuit. Our engineers knew how to design an ASIC, they just didn’t know how to design this ASIC.

In short, here is how you tackle uncertainty: First, admit what you don’t know. Plan what you can, and keep diligent track of what you are doing so everybody is in the loop, including documenting new uncertainties and any necessary adjustments to tasks or time. In other words, keep it simple, but overcommunicate. 

Evans has taken to heart the root of the idea of kanban, which translated roughly from the Japanese, means "signboard." Kanban as an idea stretches back into the mid-century history of Japanese auto manufacturing, eventually influencing just-in-time techniques and integrating with ERP.

Evans doesn’t so much believe in managing uncertainty, as much as he believes in avoiding it. If you break the world down into consumable chunks over the right timeframes, then uncertainty becomes a recognized specter just out of sight, not an overwhelming shadow that transforms execution into intransigence.

Strategists don’t always have the luxury of breaking their problems into neat stacks of time, but they do have the ability, and I would say, obligation, to recognize uncertainty and actively engage it so that operations and future plans can adapt to the inevitability of change. Only fools believe their own predictions. Good managers know they are usually wrong and are always looking for ways to be right more often.    

[Image: Flickr user gato-gato-gato]

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