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Project Management in an Uncertain Environment

"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
--Dwight Eisenhower

Most scientists begin a new investigation with only the most general sense of what they are hoping to accomplish. They anticipate reviewing preliminary results and developing new approaches as needed, once the project is under way.

You've probably been there yourself. There is so much you don't know at the start that making detailed plans seems like a difficult and unrewarding challenge, not to mention a waste of valuable time.

Fair enough. But many projects don't just begin this way; they continue this way indefinitely. As the work matures, you find that your project is missing deadlines, lacking resources, wasting time, and, in the worst cases, that key players--such as funding agencies--are losing interest. So, when is the right time to formalize the planning of the project? At what point should project management kick in?

At the outset.

There will always be uncertainties. Far from being reasons to avoid planning, these uncertainties are, arguably, the best reason to plan. Project management encourages scientists such as you to become more aware of--and, hence, to more readily control--what you know and what you don't know. This allows you to proceed with confidence, take advantage of opportunities when they arise, refine your plans as new information comes to light, and make sound resource-allocation decisions. Project management allows you to better organize your human resources: The less certain you are about the future, the more important it is to be sure that everyone involved in a project understands the current situation, future plans, and your rationale.

No matter how simple or complex the project, scientists require the same information at the outset. The first time you consider starting a new project, get out a pencil and paper and jot down the answers to the following questions:

  • What, specifically, do you want to accomplish?
  • Whose opinions and goals must you consider as you frame and perform your work?
  • What work will you have to perform?
  • What specific responsibilities will different people have? Do your people have the required expertise?
  • When will you do this work?
  • What additional resources will you need to support your work?
  • What might go wrong, and how will it affect the project if it does?

Use the following project management tools to help you answer these questions.

Defining Your Desired Outcomes

"As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room." --Annie Dillard

Prepare a statement of work at the earliest possible time, to focus your understanding of exactly what results your project is to produce. A statement of work includes:

  • Purpose: Why and by whom your project was established, the scope of work to be performed, and the general strategy for accomplishing this work
  • Objectives: Particular results to be achieved
  • Constraints: Restrictions on how you are allowed to approach your project
  • Assumptions: Information that is not at present known with certainty and that will be used in developing the plan.

At this point in your planning, you are not trying to assess the likelihood that you will be able to achieve outcomes, just decide what you would like to achieve if possible. The more specifically you can describe these desired results, the greater the chances that you will be able to achieve them.

Identifying Your Audiences

"80% of your input will come from 20% of your potential audiences. 80% of your problems will come from 20% of your potential audiences. The trick is to determine who your audiences are and in which 20% they are located." --Anonymous

At the earliest opportunity, begin to develop a list of all the people or groups interested in, affected by, or needed to support your project. Assign each "project audience" into one or more of the following categories:

  • Drivers: People who will define, to some extent, what results your project is to produce
  • Supporters: People who will enable or perform your project work
  • Observers: People who are interested in your project but are neither drivers nor supporters.

Continue to revise and expand this list throughout your project's planning and performance.

Defining the Work to Be Done

"I assume that anything I don't understand is easy to do." --Anonymous

Describe your proposed project work in a hierarchical structure that presents increasing levels of detail and specificity. This work breakdown structure (WBS) will support all remaining aspects of your planning, organizing and tracking. For more on WBS, see the 4PM site.

Assigning Roles and Responsibilities

"The matter of consulting experienced workers, of keeping all the workers informed of changes ... and how the changes are arrived at, seems to me the most important duty in the whole field of management." --Mary Barnett Gilson

Clarify the roles and responsibilities each person will have in your project, to encourage smoothly coordinated, collaborative work efforts. Develop a linear responsibility chart (see the Project Management Forum for more information and examples) to identify, for each activity in your project, who will work on it and what that person's particular responsibilities will be.

Developing a Realistic Schedule

"Work expands to fill the time available for it." --Anonymous

Prepare a realistic schedule for performing all of your project activities. Developing such a schedule requires that you take into account:

  • The time it will take to perform each activity individually
  • The order in which the activities must be performed.

Create and analyze a network diagram for your project (a flow chart of the work you propose to perform and the amount of time each step will take, in the order in which you propose to do it) to develop schedules you believe are possible to meet.

Estimating Resource Requirements

Identify all resources you believe you will need to allow you to perform the project work you have specified, in the time frames you have developed. Such resources include people, funds, equipment, raw materials, facilities, and information.

For each type of resource:

  • Develop a resources matrix to portray how much you will need for each activity
  • Develop a loading chart to denote when during the activity you will need it.

    A resource matrix and a loading chart are very similar. A resources matrix is a table estimating how much of a particular resource each item in the work breakdown structure will require. A loading chart does much the same thing but adds the element of time, specifying not only how much of the resource each item requires but also when it will require it. See the example in the sidebar.

 An example of a loading chart

Dealing With Risk and Uncertainty

"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley" --Robert Burns, "To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough"

In the scientific context as in business, "risk" has a different meaning from the one it has in common usage. More than the chance that things will go wrong, risk is the likelihood that things won't go as expected. Risk encompasses both the possibility that things will go poorly and the chance that things will go better--but differently--than expected.

Some endeavors require more flexibility than others. Clinical trials, for example, require detailed planning and strict adherence to the plan, whereas scientific investigation is often more exploratory and less predictable. It's a cliché but it's true: Sometime the biggest scientific breakthroughs are made unexpectedly, when things deviate from the plan.

Does that mean that you shouldn't even have a plan? Not at all. A detailed, well-designed project plan is one of the sharpest tools available for convincing a funder such as NSF or NIH to give you the resources you require.

So how do you plan in a context of uncertainty? You anticipate and address the possibility that things won't go as you expect. You identify those aspects that may not work out as you anticipate. You assess the likelihood that things may work out differently and the potential consequences if they do. Then, you choose those aspects that you want to monitor closely, and you develop contingency plans and/or a strategy to increase the chances that things do work out as you desire. You develop metrics--indicators--that will help you determine how well your project is going; and you continually monitor your performance to identify deviations from your plan as soon as they occur. If, and when, you deviate from your plan, you prepare and implement revised plans as necessary.


"Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish." --Ovid

It's a fact: The further into the future we try to look, the more likely things will be different when we get there. Planning can never guarantee the future; however, it can provide a framework to help us move toward the future and realize when our efforts are deviating from our goals. It also helps us minimize the price to be paid, and prepares us to take full advantage, when such deviations occur.

Stanley E. Portny

Stan Portny, president of Stanley E. Portny and Associates LLC for the past 24 years, is an internationally recognized project management and project leadership consultant and trainer. The author of Project Management for Dummies, Stan has trained over 25,000 people in more than 100 public and private organizations. Stan can be reached through his Web site.