“Sticking with … uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos,
learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” ~ Pema Chodron
Spiritual or not, this is the path of the project manager. Accepting uncertainty is a mindset that we want to promote for all stakeholders. It is about accepting and managing change and the uncertainty it brings.
This article is a follow up to my February 2023 article Goals Are NOT Expectations
I’ve experienced more than one organization that refrains from publishing long term plans, cost and revenue expectations, and budgets out of fear that they will be penalized when predictions are not realized. In other settings, project managers are held accountable for missing deadlines and budgets that seemed realistic when they were created and used to justify project approval. Even when changes out of the control of the project manager were the cause of the project’s schedule slippage, budget overrun, or failure to meet benefits expectations.
There is a paradox. Everyone likes certainty, and that like, left unchecked, leads to problems.
It is fine to like certainty but expecting it causes dissatisfied stakeholders and project failure. While we try to approach certainty, we recognize that, with few exceptions, it is unattainable.
The Best Made Plans
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” – Robert Burns
Burns got it right. Schedule and budget as best we can, and the next day there can be change, a sickness, storm, strike, or any random event that disrupts the schedule and causes cost overruns. Even if you are clever enough to build in buffers, they can be blown through.
We know we can be certain of some things that, for example, we can be certain that there will be change, we can’t control everything that affects our projects and that things will not always be how we’d like them to be. However, we can never be certain of staff and resource availability, requirements, deliverables, cash flow, the completion of tasks, inspections, tests, and more.
Since the certainty of a plan is a pipedream, we are left with two choices, don’t plan or manage uncertainty. Given Benjamin Franklin’s statement, “If You Fail to Plan, You Are Planning to Fail” the first option is not recommended. That leaves us with the need to manage uncertainty.
Doing it means accepting and letting go to manage expectations using risk and communication.
The first step is to accept that uncertainty is an unavoidable reality in projects. This acceptance is a mindset change from thinking that everything must come out the way we want it to everything will occur as it does, and we can work with it. Acceptance is the key to the “knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos.”
Acceptance does not mean passivity. With acceptance and confidence in your ability to handle anything that happens, acceptance puts you on a solid platform for success. You relax in the midst of chaos. Until you and your stakeholders accept uncertainty you cannot optimize your performance. Acceptance is what enables you to let go and let your own and your team’s skill and experience take care of business.
Then manage expectations using risk management, and communication, to get the reality of uncertainty across to all stakeholders and have them accept and let go.
Lets look at expectations to see their role in managing uncertainty and the way risk management and communication are keys to managing them.
Expectations are beliefs about the way something will come about in the future. When stakeholders have rational expectations, accepting uncertainty, they are more likely to keep calm and carry on, even when faced with chaos. With calm acceptance, the probability of success is high.
It is both the organization’s and project manager’s responsibility to make sure expectations are rational and reasonable. Risk management and communication are the tools for managing expectations.
The bottom-line expectation is to work for the best outcome possible while being ready for anything. It is expected that you as a project manager will plan and work to satisfy stakeholders. When expectations are well managed, stakeholders are more likely to be satisfied. Satisfied stakeholders mean project success.
Communication is the means to achieve rational and realistic expectations.
Communication uses the results of risk management to inform and lead. Communication includes plan presentation and revisions, and continuous candid dialogue in the form of regular progress reporting and informal conversations.
For example, when presenting a plan stress the planned outcome in terms of a range of possibilities with different likelihoods of occurrence. Include statements like “While we are confident that we will meet our sche3dule and budget expectations, we acknowledge that there may be variance. Our risk assessment and plan goes into the details regarding that possible variance. We will regularly assess risks and performance to manage expectations.”
Mindset training is a form of communication. Its purpose is to enable setting the stage for effective performance. Without mindset training that confronts biases and beliefs about the need for and ability to achieve certainty the project manager’s ability to manage expectations is limited.
Training time is limited. That is why mindset training is best done by embedding it in skills training as well as in regular meetings and presentations. For example, when giving a presentation to senior stakeholders take a few minutes to highlight that plans are predictions, and that they do not guarantee the predicted outcome. That is a great introduction to the part of the presentation that addresses risk. Posters and informal dialogues can help. In project management training include a segment on expectations management and the need to accept and manage uncertainty.
Risk management is the key part of planning that acknowledges and accepts uncertainty and manages expectations. Risk management seeks to identify and avoid the things that get in the way of success, and to promote the things that enable it
We assess risks and plan to remediate them with effective responses. We acknowledge that there are both known and unknown risks. We monitor and adjust throughout the project.
The degree to which risk management is a formal and regularly performed part of planning is a measure of whether uncertainty is accepted in an organization. Producing a plan that has a single, unqualified completion date, expense cap and benefits expectation is a sign that more mindset training and communication is needed.
What do you and your organization need to do to create the mindset that uncertainty is unavoidable?
Project Manager (PM) is no doubt one of the most stressful jobs out there as the PM is directly responsible and accountable for the success or failure of a project. Some PMs believed that they can handle and cope with the high level of stress but there are some who are ignoring or refuse to recognize that they are under stress. The experience of stress is not only impacting the cognitive and behavioral performance, it can also have a negative impact on your personal health, wellbeing, and family life. You might not able to change the amount of stress you have on a daily basis, but you can change how you deal with it. It is important to manage the stress before it becomes more and more difficult to handle and manage.
The Yerkes-Dodson Curve
Based on the Yerkes-Dodson curve, moderate level of stress improves performance and when the stress level increases more, the performance decreases. Hence, it is crucial for project managers to be able to moderate the stress levels for optimal performance.
Causes of Stress in Project Management
Imaging the project deadline is 2 weeks away and there are still some critical issues to be resolved. To make it worse, one of your key team members has been hospitalized. Customer is unhappy and management is requesting for a daily review. The source of stress in Project Management can be many and varied. Some common sources are listed below:
- Unrealistic timeline
- Working in a matrix system which PM does not have the full control of the resources
- Lack of resources – human and/or equipment
- Proliferation of virtual teams and cross cultural influences
- Inter-group conflict in organization
- Project environment
And the list goes on.
Stress Management Techniques
Project Manager must first acknowledge or recognize that he or she is being under stress and then develop self-discipline before proceeding to learn and practice what are the techniques to manage stress. Learning to manage stress successfully begins with our willingness to take an honest look at ourselves.
Many techniques can help to manage stress. There is no-one-size-fits-all technique and no technique will be able to eliminate stress totally. Each person must decide what will work best for him or her. A few techniques should be explored to determine which works best and once they have found some strategies that work, commitment to practicing them is the key for managing stress.
I find five interpersonal skills and/or attitudes that help reduce stress taken from “Tangible Tips for Handling the Endless Stress in Project Management” by Steven Flannes, Ph.D., Principal, Flannes & Associates below to be really helpful in managing stress in Project Management:
- Detach or dissociate: Consider the team meeting where you are extremely frustrated by seeing wasted time or the personal posturing from a team member. To use detachment or dissociation, allow yourself to mentally “check out” of the meeting as much as is appropriate, letting your mind wander to a more pleasant image. Obviously, these approaches are used selectively and discretely.
- Monitor “what if?” thinking: In the middle of a stressful event, it is natural to engage in “what if thinking,” asking ourselves “What if we’d only done this in the past, then we might not be in this crisis right now?” As is evident, this form of “what if” thinking involves a focus that is not present oriented. An alternative to this form of thinking is to focus very much in the present, such as posing this question to yourself: “It’s Thursday at 3:17 PM, I’ve just received bad news about the project. What can I do in the next hour to take a small step towards improving the situation?”
- Develop potent conflict resolution skills: We add stress to our work lives by either under reacting to the stressful situation (avoiding or denying it) or over reacting to the stressful situation (coming on too strong). Both approaches increase our stress. A menu of conflict resolution skills (which will help reduce stress) is found in Flannes and Levin (2005).
- Know when enough is enough, and stay away from debating: A natural but often unproductive approach to resolve a stressful situation is to debate another person about the wisdom of your point of view. This does not mean you should not assert your belief, but you should know when to stop, often when your message has been heard. At this point in the dialogue, if we continue try to be seen as “right,” we are actually increasing our stress. It’s better to stop earlier than later; it can be a matter of diminishing returns to continue to be seen as “right.”
- Look for a paradoxical component in the situation: In the midst of a situation that is legitimately stressful, we may find ourselves taking ourselves, or the situation, too seriously. Cognitive behavioral psychologists would say that we are engaging in “catastrophizing” behavior, in which we take a singular, negative event, cognitively “run with it,” and then find ourselves believing, for example, that the entire project is probably doomed because of this one serious problem. An antidote to this is to find a paradoxical cognition that you can hold onto, something that will put your stress and worries in perspective.
Prioritize: Put up a priority matrix and assign every task based on its urgency and importance. Focus on the tasks that are urgent and important. Don’t overwhelm yourself by worrying about your entire workload.
Avoid extreme reactions: Why hate when a little dislike will do? Why generate anxiety when you can be nervous? Why rage when anger will do the job? Why be depressed when you can just be sad?
Applying NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) to Stress Reduction: NLP provides a number of excellent tools and concepts to empower individuals to cope with or change non-resourceful or negative stress to resourceful or positive resources.With NLP you can change overwhelming, immobilizing feelings into powerful motivating forces.
Exercise: Take some time off from your busy schedule and plan for some physical activities, whether it’s jogging, cycling, hiking or other activities to work off stress.
Meditation: Learn how to best relax yourself. Meditation and breathing exercises have been proven to be very effective in controlling stress. Practice clearing your mind of disturbing thoughts.
The success in managing stress does not depend solely on the type of technique that is used, but instead the commitment from the individual that makes the difference. The same strategy might not work for everyone. Individual must take an honest look within him or herself and determine what is practical and make the most sense. Working to reduce stress can enhance happiness and health for many years. It does make a difference!
- Tangible Tips for Handling the Endless Stress in Project Management by Steven Flannes, Ph.D., Principal, Flannes & Associates
- Stress Management Through NLP By John C Goodman, MSOD, LCSW
- Simple Steps for Managing Stress in Your Life By STEVE BRESSERT, PH.D.
The world is changing fast, and so is the future of project management. For new and established project professionals, the challenge to stay competitive and relevant in our ever-evolving work environment can be daunting – particularly in the face of constant disruption and economic uncertainty.
The good news is project talent is still in high demand. My organization, Project Management Institute (PMI), recently released its Global Project Management Job Trends for 2023 showing that – despite the disruption and economic uncertainty – this demand will only increase, presenting a strong opportunity for project professionals to advance their careers over the next decade. In fact, from now until 2030, 2.3 million people will be needed each year to fill open project management-oriented positions, according to PMI’s most recent Talent Gap report.
So, what will these positions look like, and how can you take advantage of these opportunities? Here are the sectors to watch for and ways you can upskill or reskill to prepare for your next career move:
Despite setbacks including the global pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation, the construction industry continues to grow and expand, creating job openings for project professionals. The recent investment in U.S. infrastructure also provides a significant opportunity, with an estimated 17 million infrastructure-related jobs to be filled by 2031, many of those in construction and built areas.
If you are interested in beginning or advancing your career in construction, the opportunities are endless with projects touching telecom, power, water, and more. It’s important to note that this is a rapidly evolving industry, so you must develop relevant skills, including the mastery of digital tools like building information management and cutting-edge tech to allow virtual building tours before ground has been broken.
If you have at least three years of project experience in the construction field, the Construction Professional in Built Environment Projects (PMI-CP)™ can help you acquire skills like stakeholder communication and scope and risk management, using construction-specific context to prime you for future opportunities in the industry.
Consulting & ESG
While consulting was previously more aligned with late-career professionals to leverage their professional expertise, a career in consulting is now a space for all project professionals. Project management consultants are often brought in to implement organizational transformations, requiring them to keep pace with the latest developments in new technologies like AI and low-code or no-code tools. A successful career in consulting also requires proficiency in interpersonal skills, like communication and active listening – which PMI calls “power skills” – to provide the best possible guidance to employers and clients, solve pain points, and demonstrate value aligned with organizational goals.
With an increasing demand for organizations to invest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices, this also presents a new path for project managers to build a career in ESG. Project professionals have the necessary tools and skillset that make them well-suited to manage complex, long-term projects that require implementation, stakeholder management, and designating and meeting KPIs.
With this sector rapidly moving toward a fintech future, project professionals have an opportunity for a career in financial services to help drive this industry’s digital revolution. Gaining knowledge of data privacy, legal and regulatory requirements, and consumer expectations is crucial as financial services companies look to balance the pursuit of profit with innovation to redefine industry services.
Project professionals who achieve this balance will be invaluable to their teams, helping to vet and implement trends and technology to improve customer services and advance the business, while avoiding those which do not. Because working with data privacy and regulatory factors comes with a bit of inherent risk, the PMI Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP)® certification, for example, can help arm you with knowledge for industry success – from registering threats and risks to developing mitigation plans and customer solutions.
PMOs: The Project Management Office
For professionals eager to help a business ensure their various projects and programs create value, consider a career in a PMO, or project management office. In the last decade, the role of the PMO has evolved. They are increasingly focused on helping organizations adapt to innovative processes as they embrace new ways of working, while also ensuring capabilities – like data and technology – are maximized in the implementation process. This requires alignment with the processes and decision-making behind a company’s big-picture objectives.
To pursue a role in a PMO, seeking a PMO mentor is a good first step. You might consider joining a professional association, which offers opportunities to seek out mentors specific to your desired career path. Additionally, if you have experience leading projects, obtaining a globally-recognized certification like the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification can set you apart and prepare you to succeed and create value in a PMO.
Prepare for Your Next Career Move
For project professionals unsure of their preferred industry or area of focus, there are many ways to learn more about the different career paths available. Attending in-person or virtual events is one way to gain greater knowledge of trends and growth areas, with many free of charge. Events like the Virtual Experience Series 2023: PMXPO, for example, offer a chance for professionals to broaden their perspective on project management and connect with peers.
Additionally, membership within a professional organization like PMI® provides opportunities to network with other project professionals across industries and sectors, sharing best practices and career experiences – including tips and strategies to upskill and reskill. PMI also offers local chapter membership, which allows you to take the power of networking further with those in your own community – this can be a great way to also volunteer in chapter activities and even learn about new job openings.
Early-stage project professionals should consider PMI’s free, 45-minute introductory KICKOFF™ course, or its Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification, a highly regarded certification that serves as a crucial stepping-stone on your path to career advancement. Professionals at all levels might also consider exploring PMI’s Career Navigator tool, which provides a personalized action plans to help users meet their goals.
Despite the uncertain economic forecast, project talent will be in demand for years to come. And fortunately for project professionals, career paths are not limited to one industry; opportunity exists across many sectors. And while the specific skillsets required of project managers somewhat varies across industries, knowledge and understanding of cutting-edge trends and technology, a mastery of power skills, a commitment to upskilling and reskilling, and connecting with a professional network are of the utmost importance. Opportunity is everywhere for project professionals; be ready when it knocks.
An important part of managing any project is being able to break the project down into its component parts. A good project manager and project team need to know and fully understand what a project is intended to do in order to plan and develop the details of the project deliverables.
Project deliverables, according to the PMBOK Guide, are, “Any unique and verifiable product, result, or capability to perform a service that is required to be produced to complete a process, phase, or project.” (Project Management Institute, 2021). Simply put, deliverables are what a project creates or produces – the output of a project. Those deliverables can be tangible, such as physical objects like products, or intangible, such as events or processes. They define what a project should make or do. When deliverables are correctly defined, each deliverable should come in two pieces. One piece is the deliverable itself and another piece is the associated success criteria for that deliverable. Success criteria can be broadly explained as the criteria used to measure project success (Castro et al., 2019). Success criteria come in a broad range of formats, with elements and standards able to be applied to different projects as appropriate. If a project deliverable is successfully completed, success criteria spell out in detail what that success should look like.
There are a number of different practices for addressing this part of project planning. From informal discussion and consideration to structured, formal brainstorming sessions. User Stories are one tool that every project manager should have in their toolbox for creating and defining project deliverables.
A user story is a short statement in the everyday language or business language of the end user of a project’s output that captures, summarizes, and articulates what a user does or needs to do with that output. It states what the user of the project output wants that project output to be able to do or what they want to be able to do with it. User stories describe the features of a projects output from the point of view of an end user.
User stories have their background in agile practices in software development. In this context, user stories are written to describe the features to be included in a software or technology project. Assembled together, the list of user stories makes up the product backlog, or list of features to be built into and included in the project. Based on order of priority, those features are pulled from the product backlog for inclusion in a sprint cycle.
As agile practices have since expanded well beyond the software and general technology sector and into use in all types of projects, so have user stories. They have since become a useful feature in describing the output and elements of various types of projects.
User stories are written in a standardized format. They clearly define the end user in mind (the who), the feature to be described and included (the what), and how the user will use that feature of the product (the why). The format for user stories is, “As a (user role) , I want a (product feature) , so that I can (benefit / use description) . “
The “Who” element describes the role of the user. It asks and answers the question, “who will use the output and receive value from a particular output feature?”.
The “What” element describes the product feature itself. This is the deliverable item of the aforementioned output. In agile teams, this would describe one unit of delivery. It is a single, individual feature of a projects output.
The “Why” clearly describes how the user defined in the “who” part of the story intends to use the feature. What will they do with the feature and how does it bring value to the output of the project?
Examples of user stories include:
- As a listener, I need a tuning button, so I can find my favorite radio station.
- As a theater visitor, I need a ticket, so I can attend the performance.
- As a convention delegate, I need a schedule of events, so I can plan my day at the convention.
Several slight variations on the format exist, but the general point is always the same – identifying the user, describing the output feature, and detailing its use or function. The elements can be broken down and considered in those three parts.
Story Cards – simplified approach
Story cards are the tools used to create, arrange, and organize user stories. Each story card is a user story as a self-contained description of a project feature, with additional accompanying elements included along with it to help further define the details of that feature. User stories are traditionally written on physical, individual cards in order to establish the details of each user story and to facilitate the reprioritization and rearrangement of the stories for inclusion in the project. In contemporary practice, story cards can be created and arranged in digital form, using various project management, storyboarding, or digital whiteboard software and applications. Any format works, as long as it can be viewed, shared, discussed, and changed by the project team members.
Just as user stories themselves have some slight variations in structure depending on the specific methodology followed, so do story cards. At a basic level, a user story card should include a title, a value statement, basic requirements, size estimation, and acceptance criteria.
The title of the story card is exactly what it sounds like. It is a shortened or abbreviated name of the story. It should be sufficiently expressive to describe the feature it defines. Titles help to organize the stories for arrangement and prioritization.
The value statement is the heart of the story card, presenting the user story itself in the format previously set out. It describes the user role, the feature to be included, and the benefit or use of that feature to the end user.
The basic requirements section is a flexible element of the story card and can be used to further define some of the essentials or expectations of the feature or its development. This can include anything from aspects of functionality to resources or constraints in producing the feature. The Basic Requirements element can be included or omitted at the discretion of the project manager or as the feature itself necessitates.
In agile methodologies, the size estimation is typically done using an estimation point system. In other practical usage, a time estimation is useful to include and sufficient to further define the story. This is done by estimating, in time or work units, how long the feature will take to complete as described.
Acceptance criteria describe the basic benchmark that has to be met in order to consider the story complete. It is a description of a successfully completed and functional feature. Acceptance criteria can be written by asking and answering the question, “If this feature is successfully included, what does that success look like?”
In agile methodologies such as Scrum, the collection of story cards makes up the Product Backlog, or list of features to be selected for inclusion and built into the project during an iterative sprint cycle. For more traditional methodologies, user stories and story cards can serve a number of roles. They can help to describe and define features of a projects output from an important point of view – that of the end user. In project brainstorming sessions, this approach helps project team members to take on that role in considering features. Once those features are defined, they can be added to the deliverables list for the project, either as final deliverables or for inclusion in an iterative development cycle. Finally, they can be used to supplement a traditional Work Breakdown Structure. In this way, the story cards can create additional WBS tasks and activities for inclusion in the project schedule.
Any way they are applied, user stories and story cards are a useful tool for project managers to have in project planning and development. They provide a structured way to consider project features, activities, and stakeholder groups.