Project management is about managing the unexpected

There’s a snappier title for this blog post, but it’s not mine. It comes from Tim Lister, who says: “Risk management is project management for grown-ups”. This is in his book, co-authored with Tom DeMarco, and also the title of his 2014 QCon London presentation. And maybe that’s all there is to say… but the truth of it struck me again this week.

I’ve been talking recently to Matthew Leitch, extending our work on our article about risk experts [1] [2]. As part of that we’ve been creating a fictional, but plausible, scenario: a project team starts with plan, things don’t go as expected, and they have to deal with it. That is more-or-less what happens in every reasonably non-trivial project. So how do people think of project management?

If we believe our project plan is a good predictor of the future then project management would simply be a matter of execution. A better project manager, in this world, would be someone who can follow a plan most precisely. Or—if we allow that a plan is never entirely complete in every detail—who can execute it most precisely while filling in the gaps best. By contrast, if a project isn’t going well, then it must be the fault of the project manager or their team for not executing the plan well enough. But I don’t know anyone who really believes that’s what project management is all about, even if some of them act as if they do by blaming the team unnecessarily.

So instead project management must really be about managing the uncertainties, or the unexpected events. This is not just about handling bad things that might happen (which people usually call risk), but also about exploiting the unexpected positives. This means the job of a project manager is about creating an environment where uncertainty is handled smoothly. Things like plans are valuable, but the real skill is navigating the project through a sea of uncertainty.

This is why Agile values “responding to change over following a plan” and is largely successful. It creates a system that allows the team to navigate uncertainty effectively. And if we can create a system to manage uncertainty then we can take uncertainty in our stride.