Embracing Uncertainty in Custom Software Projects, Part 1

Like most people, I don’t exactly thrive on uncertainty. As a creature of habit, I always order the same ice cream (cookies & cream). I drive the same route to work each day. I tend to watch the same movies over and over again. And why do I do this? Because it’s comfortable and typically results in a positive outcome.

I also happen to work for a custom software consultancy, where some uncertainty is inevitable in every project. And I’m not the only one on my team who’s wary of the unknown. In fact, Atomic has an acronym to describe bad feelings at work, and “uncertainty” is second on the list. So, let’s talk about uncertainty.

It’s okay to crave certainty.

The human brain is averse to uncertainty. That’s because we’re wired to recognize patterns and make connections. There’s comfort in being able to predict future events. This is illustrated in a University College London study. In that study, participants who knew they were about to receive a small electric shock experienced less stress than participants whose outcome was unknown. So it’s no surprise we avoid uncertainty wherever possible, including at work.

Entering the workforce post-graduation was a bit of a shock for me. My educational experiences revolved around structure and routine. I knew what success looked like on assignments. And, test questions usually had a single correct answer.

Uncertainty lurks around every corner.

I kept thinking I’d eventually learn the formula for project success and everything would be smooth sailing. But I quickly learned there was no one-size-fits-all solution.

When it comes to custom software, uncertainty seems to lurk around every corner:

  • working with a new client in an unfamiliar industry
  • new team members working together for the first time
  • incomplete understanding of scope
  • inaccurate understanding of the effort involved
  • unclear value proposition
  • unknown feasibility of a technical approach
  • unclear value proposition
  • ambiguous requirements or changing requirements
  • shifting priorities and constraints
  • unexpected events/outside factors

Leaving these factors unaddressed can indeed jeopardize your team’s effectiveness and morale. But, despite the discomfort it causes, uncertainty itself isn’t inherently negative. Keep reading as I share some ways to respond to the unknown and embrace uncertainty as an opportunity.


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