Embracing Uncertainty in Custom Software Projects, Part 3

In part one of this series, we looked at uncertainty and why it isn’t always bad. Next, in part two, we discussed how to help your team through uncertainty. In this third and final piece, we’ll examine the difference between uncertainty and risk.

Uncertainty stresses out our teams and clients. And, our brains are literally hard-wired to avoid it. So, why on earth would we embrace it? As I reflect on past projects, the unpredictable ones stand out in my memory. When faced with the unknown, my teams responded by cultivating creative solutions that often resulted in the biggest wins.

Uncertainty vs. Risk

To see uncertainty in a different light, we must understand the difference between uncertainty and risk.

  • A risk is a potential event or outcome that could affect the success of the project. Typically, you can measure both the probability and the impact of a risk. Teams usually perceive risks as threats, and they must be carefully tracked and managed.
  • An uncertainty is unknown until it arises. You don’t yet know the possible outcomes, and you’re unable to track, measure, or control them. This makes them scarier, but it also means they are not limited to negative consequences.

Much like a risk, it’s easy to view uncertainty as a disruption to your best-laid project plans. But what if uncertainty is a precondition to opportunity? Uncertainty could result in failure. Or, it could signal the first small step toward improvement, whether that’s implementing a new technology or process or identifying a new project for the future.

The Silver Linings of Uncertainty

The next time you’re faced with the unknown, look for opportunities to:

  • Sift through priorities and re-examine assumptions.
  • Laser focus on the next step instead of the big picture, spurring project momentum.
  • Practice humility by prioritizing learning over knowing.
  • Explore without the constraint of a locked-in result.
  • Persevere and cultivate team resilience by finding new ways of working through challenges.
  • Practice servant leadership by supporting your team through the tough times.

Clinging inflexibly to a project plan may limit our ability to provide our clients and end users with added value. Conversely, not knowing the result of the project leaves room for exploration and iteration. Don’t make the mistake of maximizing predictability while minimizing value. Uncertain project conditions may be just the proving ground your team needs to build confidence and new ways of working together.


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