The Martian has become my favourite film over the past few years. Our lives have been so full of uncertainty I often wonder if as project management consultants we fare better than other industries because dealing with ambiguity on projects is so often part of our role and remit.

These are just some of the situations we face when we start working on projects:

  • Teams are thrown into project mode without clear roles established or understood
  • Scope is not fully defined or has unresolved dependencies
  • We encounter new project situations, with few other examples to benchmark what success looks like
  • Project goals are misaligned or misunderstood by the project team

As consultants and project managers we work on change projects that inherently have ambiguity and we see our role as an enabler to get our clients from A to B. We use a set of tools and techniques that help us on this journey. Our consultants have the attitude and ability to improve two core skills that help us deal with ambiguity:

  1. Situational awareness – situational awareness is a core skill used in healthcare, law enforcement, military, and aviation. It has a role to play in project management too. It is about knowing what is going on in the environment and its implications for the present and the future. As project managers, we observe the environment around us to proactively identify risks and opportunities, as well as predict outcomes for good decision making.
  2. Growth mindset – to be a good consultant we cannot focus on fear of the unknown. We persevere and welcome a challenge, acknowledging we do not always have all the answers. We continually learn from mistakes, individually and collectively as a consultancy practice. We genuinely want our clients to succeed and welcome feedback.

What does it mean in practice, in a fast-paced project environment?

  • If we attend all project meetings or focus on one individual too much we lose that important helicopter view of the project. We need to be able to distinguish between people and the project environment (project progress, team, board, internal and external stakeholders, members, supporters) to make better sense of the project.
  • Quality communication is key. We need to be able to articulate the situation clearly, acknowledge areas of ambiguity on a project and explain the current state of play to all project stakeholders.
  • We need to understand and forecast options for the way forward on a project, clearly identifying risks and opportunities to unblock areas of ambiguity and facilitate decision making.
  • Don’t let the tech add to the ambiguity. On technology projects it is important to remember not to complicate any situation by asking project boards to make technical decisions. Instead we need to focus on the important question why we are doing the project, how any decision affects the business and what implication a given option will have on time, scope, people and budget.
  • As project management consultants, we have to remain positive, take strength and confidence in what we do know, not focus on what we don’t…

Which also brings me to my favourite quote from Mark Watney in the Martian:

“You solve one problem and you solve the next one and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”