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Manage Communications to Address Uncertainty

Managing uncertainty is a complex process. In this article, we look at the role communication plays in effectively working with uncertainty and its impact on people in and around projects.

Case Situation

A Service manager (SM) is responsible to the sponsor for oversight of projects. A client Is having renovations done on his property. The client’s project manager is coordinating four subcontractors and has scheduled their work . The client has scheduled other unrelated matters to coordinate with the renovation project.

On a Friday, one week before work is to begin, the SM calls the client to inform him that an asbestos assessment needs to be done before work can begin, and if asbestos is found then it would have to be remediated. Once the estimate and schedule for the remediation work is set, the rest of the project would have to be rescheduled, cost of delays figured in, etc. – ripples, sending effects into the future across multiple projects and activities. The SM takes responsibility for forgetting about this requirement two months earlier when the project was being planned and says, “The assessor is coming Monday or Tuesday, I’ll keep your informed.”

The following Thursday, the client texts the SM to get a status report and gets no response. He shifts to a call and an email to makes contact to find that asbestos was present but remediation estimate and schedule was not set.
The SM was planning to contact the client when the estimate was available.

A similar scenario could occur in any project. Particularly if it requires external oversight based on legal or administrative policies and procedures. For example the late discovery that an administrative group has to edit and sign off on all the messaging on a website or mobile application that is scheduled to be released in a week; or, forgetting that legal and finance departments’ approval of a contract is necessary before any work can begin.

Complication, Complexity, Uncertainty and Resilience

This one small scenario has many facets. There are lessons to learn in expectations management, communications, the need for procedures and checklists, accountability, contracting, scheduling, budgeting, estimating and risk management. The complicated relationship among multiple performance factors, people, projects and tasks within each project becomes complex – it becomes impossible to accurately predict the results of change.

Accepting complexity with the uncertainty it brings, and accepting the inevitability of expected and unexpected change, one realizes the need for resiliency – the ability to flow with change.

In project work, resiliency implies continuous communication and planning – stepping back and assessing the situation objectively to decide on the right course of action from a change point out into the future.

Resiliency requires objectivity. Biases and emotions like anxiety and anger are natural and not to be denied, ignored or suppressed. They are part of the whole and must be considered. But, it is unskillful to let them drive decision making. It is skillful to see the full picture objectively, assess and decide on a plan that is likely to achieve stakeholder goals and objectives, if possible.

See this article for more on Resiliency.

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Manage Communication Expectations

A key foundation for resiliently managing complex change is establishing common expectations about communication and how they address uncertainty. These must be based on an understanding of how communication effects the anxiety that uncertainty often causes.

Uncertainty is often difficult for people, particularly when they have a serious stake in the game. As much as possible, keep people informed in an agreed upon time frame. It can be hourly, daily and/or when key events have taken place, depending on the circumstances.

Clear expectations and follow through, make it unnecessary for the client to worry and think he must be proactive to get the news he wants. In our case situation, unnecessary anxiety could have been reduced if the client’s expectation that he be informed when the assessment was done was shared by the SM. The SM had good reason to minimize contacts and wait until the estimate and schedule were ready. The client needed to have reassurance that some progress was being made. Aware of the client’s need, the SM makes an extra effort to keep him informed more frequently.

Moving Forward with Commu8ncations Planning and Mindful Awareness

From a project management process perspective, create a communications plan that addresses response times for communications and includes guidelines for expectations and conflict management. See this article for more on Communications.

On the individual level, cultivate the mindful awareness that enables the emotional and social intelligence – sensitivity to one’s own and other people’s emotional needs as well as their more concrete functional needs. This supports clarity and objectivity in decision making and minimizes the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. Try this article for more on Mindfully Managing Emotions.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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