How to Manage Unpredictable Projects

Uncertainty doesn’t have to be debilitating for project managers and teams. By focusing on “slices” of the work, and learning from frequent feedback, you can navigate changes and obstacles— and maximize value.

Written by Project Management Institute • 22 May 2024

How to Manage Unpredictable Projects

Efficient and effective. That is what organizations want from their projects. And many project managers are very good at the efficiency part. They develop detailed plans, maintain schedules, optimize resources, and report progress to all concerned. They are focused on minimizing waste and maximizing value, as well they should be.

But efficiency doesn’t guarantee effectiveness. A project can be completed on time and on budget and fail to deliver value. Or maybe it does succeed, but in a different way than planned — after the project manager and team have adjusted to new information discovered along the way. Because projects are unpredictable, how teams navigate this uncertainty will largely determine how effective they are.

The key to project success is to stay focused on the results that matter, says Anton Skornyakov, managing director of Agile Coach and author of The Art of Slicing Work. Anton’s focus on “slicing work” is rooted in Scrum, but he emphasizes that this approach is not about a methodology; it’s about allowing for steady and controllable progress, creating a sense of shared ownership and responsibility, and maximizing the value of the work produced.

PMI chatted with Anton about his thoughts on slicing work and managing unpredictability.

What does ‘slicing work’ mean?
Slicing work is a skill that is at the core of structuring any kind of work. Looking at projects through the lens of how work is structured — along horizontal lines (activities) or vertical lines (deliverables or "slices") — allows us to make informed decisions on where we want to iterate and learn, or where we want to optimize for efficiency.

A vertical slice of project work is a look at a result.
Small vertical slices enable fast, frequent feedback.

  • You identify issues and dead ends.
  • You learn, adjust and improve.
  • You navigate unpredictability!

How does this fit in with Scrum?
I believe we can manage projects pragmatically and can circumvent submitting to any belief system, be it waterfall or agile. Being a Scrum trainer, however, I see that creating slices that are small and deliverable within weeks is not something everyone knows how to do. Breaking a project down into activities is very intuitive, especially when you are an expert in your field. But breaking your project down into small, checkable deliverables is often counterintuitive at first, and it requires some learning by doing.

How do you balance efficiency and effectiveness?
On projects, we need to accomplish two things: 1) achieve a target impact, also known as being effective, and 2) achieve this target quickly and with minimal resources, also known as being efficient. 

At certain stages of our project, we need to ensure that what we've set out to do will be effective. This is where focusing on and learning from vertical slices is key. It involves cross-functional collaboration and fast customer feedback. You try the riskiest things first, measure progress, and adjust quickly. 

Once we become familiar with a vertical slice, we can switch to more rigorous planning and optimize for efficiency in that area. We can do deep analysis, agree on general design or architecture upfront, identify possible risks and mitigation strategies, and use Gantt diagrams with dependencies to track and report progress.

Optimizing for efficiency minimizes the effort and resources needed to achieve a fixed goal.
Optimizing for effectiveness maximizes the impact achieved with a fixed number of resources. 

So slicing work fits within a hybrid approach?

In areas where similar projects happen repeatedly, hybrid approaches are normal. Think of building a new house. It starts with an architect, who will do some analysis but will also iterate, showing several prototypes until a project plan can be fleshed out. The actual manual work of building a house is then managed as a classic project. 

In unique and larger projects, slicing work helps you separate different parts of the project and manage each one appropriately. It enables organizations to choose the right approach to structuring work. This reduces waste and speeds up learning. It better manages stakeholder expectations, and it improves tracking the progress in each area of the project.

How does an organization’s culture factor into this?
If you've ever experienced a real culture change, you know there is resistance to overcome — not once but regularly. When clear, attainable results and feedback are lacking, [new ways of working] can become theoretical and often don’t lead anywhere.

When we slice work, there is immediate feedback. Discussions become pragmatic and another kind of leadership and culture surfaces. Slicing work makes change much more goal-oriented and impact-focused. And better results help us understand why we need to do the hard work of changing our common habits and addressing our belief systems.

What power or soft skills are most important for this approach?
Effective communication skills are of tremendous importance. You must be able to invite and give critical feedback, and to help establish environments where critical feedback can be safely exchanged. Most humans want harmony and avoid conflict, so being critical and staying safe isn't straightforward, which is why this is an important skill to learn. When we look at areas of our projects that are less predictable, where we need to expect surprises, more than half of our ideas and plans may not work. When we deliver a vertical slice and test it, people need to feel safe sharing critical feedback, or they just end up being silent and we keep going in the wrong direction.

Key Takeaways

  • Work can be broken down or “sliced” two different ways: horizontally and vertically. How you slice work will impact how you assign and check work, who takes ownership of the work, and your ability to identify surprises and adapt accordingly.
  • Horizontal slices are the actions, steps, or tasks that must be done to create a specific result. They’re best used for predictable projects that require efficiency, and they can be given to less-experienced individuals.
  • Vertical slices are the best option when unpredictability is a factor. They give an overview, allowing you to manage scope and measure progress. They can be assigned to capable individuals and teams.

You Might Also Like…

  • Find Better Ways of Working—Projectified® Podcast ǀ Listen
  • Building and Leading High-Performance Teams | Download
  • Optimize Your Project Life Cycle Using AgileThe PMI Blog ǀ Read


Project Management Institute
Author | PMI

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