Management of Uncertainty in Agile Projects

One of the biggest inherent advantages of an Agile approach is the management of uncertainty in Agile projects. To understand this better, we need to first understand the difference between:

  • An Empirical Process Control Model and
  • A Defined Process Control Model

Empirical and Defined Process Models

A key thing to understand in this context is the difference between and Empirical Process and a Defined Process.

Empirical Process Control Model

Agile is based on an empirical process approach – the word “empirical” means “based on experiment or observation”.
When you use an empirical process approach,

  • You accept that you don’t know everything you might want to know about a project before you start and
  • The process is designed to adapt both the solution and the process to discover the solution to learning as the project progresses.

Defined Process Control Model

A “Defined Process” is repeatable and doesn’t change significantly from one project to the next and

  • Is very predictable in the results it produces while an “Empirical Process” is specifically intended to favor adaptability over predictability.
  • For that reason, an empirical process is much better suited for a project with high levels of uncertainty.

Uncertainty in Agile Projects

A very powerful concept for understanding uncertainty in Agile Projects is the “Stacey Complexity Model” which is shown below:

Uncertainty in Agile Projects

There are two dimensions of uncertainty in this model:

Requirements Uncertainty

One dimension is requirements uncertainty – How well understood are the goals and requirements for the project and how certain are the customers that they know what they want?

Technology Uncertainty

The other dimension is technology uncertainty – How well understood is the technology solution to the problem and what is the level of risk associated with the technology solution?

This is a very important concept because the ability to handle uncertainty is so important in today’s most critical projects and heavily plan-driven projects are not well-designed to deal with high levels of uncertainty.

Management of Uncertainty

What typically happens in a plan-driven project is the project manager tries to reduce the level of uncertainty to an acceptable level before starting the project by:

  • Trying to resolve any uncertainties in the requirements as much as possible before the project starts, and
  • Trying to eliminate as much technology risk as possible

This often results in using tried-and-proven technology and doesn’t push the envelope too far in terms of going into areas of new and undefined user requirements. The downside of that, of course, is that the technology approach may wind up being obsolete within a relatively short amount of time after it is released and it may also result in a very mediocre user experience with the solution.

What Does “Managing Uncertainty” Mean?

Let me clarify what I mean by “managing uncertainty”.

  • To some people, uncertainty is like a cancer that attacks a project and can cause it to fail. Conventional project management thinking has reinforced this approach to reduce the risk and uncertainty in a project as much as possible
  • I don’t see it that way uncertainty can also represent opportunity to go beyond what is expected and the value a project produces is many times directly related to the risk and uncertainty in the project
  • If you force a project to fit into a plan-driven model by reducing the risk and uncertainty, you may be maximizing the predictability of the project to meet cost and schedule goals but minimizing the value that the project produces

Here’s another article with more detail on this:

Overall Summary

Here’s a summary of some important points:

  • Uncertainty should not be ignored and not managed at all. Uncertainty often is directly associated with opportunity
  • Fortunately, this is not a black-and-white decision between:
    • A totally rigid, plan-driven approach with almost zero uncertainty and
    • A totally adaptive approach with an extremely high level of uncertainty.

The right thing to do is to fit the approach to the level of uncertainty in the project rather than force-fitting a project to some kind of canned approach (whatever it might be). It takes more skill to develop an intelligent approach for managing uncertainty; it requires:

  • The ability to objectively assess the level of uncertainty in a project
  • An understanding of both empirical and defined process models
  • A deeper understanding of the principles behind these approaches to know how to blend the two together to fit the situation

The ability to do that is the essence of what I believe is an effective Agile Project Management approach.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

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