Project Management Institute

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Disruption Isn't Going Away; These Three Tips Will Help Teams Using Agile Adapt

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By Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, contributing editor

As much as we yearn for a pre-pandemic return, it’s naive to think the old ways of work will ever return—even for agile. From the dot-bomb to the decline of brick-and-mortar retail to electric vehicles to virtual learning, disruption keeps repeating itself decade after decade, year after year.

With uncertainty as the new certainty, project leaders must rethink agile. These three tips will help them adapt to an ever-changing project terrain:

1. MAKE CONTINGENCIES MANDATORY

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that backup plans are crucial—and must constantly be reevaluated. It’s one thing to use agile as a means to adapt to change. But now, adapting plans will forever be an expectation for any project manager, regardless of whether you are using formal agile approaches.

You will need to articulate many more contingency options than ever before. What if we get defunded? What if our executive sponsor leaves mid-project? What if the stock market crashes? What if social justice tensions reveal themselves in our teams? This is more than just documenting doomsday scenarios in a risk register—it’s about embedding contingencies into your approach, such as: PMO managers adding buffer sprints to their schedules; product owners proactively naming a deputy decision maker in case of emergencies; scrum masters seeking human resources diversity guidance before teamwork quietly erodes. The project leader who has a backup to the backup is one who is not easily flustered by change.

2. MAKE INCREMENTAL DELIVERY AN EXPECTATION

The key benefit of agile delivery—complete a strategic subset of the scope, build immediate momentum and get stakeholder feedback to inform the next delivery—has always helped avoid the risks of changing customer opinions or delivery issues earlier in the timeline. But there’s another post-pandemic bonus: deliver a minimum ROI, before everything goes wrong.

If you are working on a new customer analytics dashboard for sales executives, your charter might call for elaborate reports and insights. By slicing the project into a series of incremental capabilities, you can deliver something sooner, in case leadership pivots the strategy.

Imagine if I got this email: “Hi, Jesse. We need to reallocate your project staff to an urgent marketing effort. However, we’re so impressed with the analytics from your prototype, we’d like you to head a new initiative.” Suddenly, incremental delivery elevates from a project risk approach to a strategic organizational capability, which, in turn, makes you and your team more valuable.

3. MAKE EMPATHY A CORE RESPONSIBILITY

During a lockdown, one project management office leader told me she was criticized when her toddler made an unexpected appearance on a videoconference call. Her co-worker justified the criticism by saying, “It’s just not professional to have children disrupting our meetings.”

Needless to say, that left a mark, and now that relationship damage will lower her productivity, alignment and teamwork. What if that co-worker responded instead with the simple, common phrase: “Don’t worry. I get it. We are in this together”?

Empathy is a power skill that’s been shown to improve organizational outcomes. It’s about asking colleagues to embrace the sentiment that every team member suffers disruption to some degree. That’s especially needed for agile, where there’s a daily opportunity to offer each other grace and flexibility. That might be just enough to get me through the day, to mentally refocus onto action items and tasks with the energy of confidence and loyalty, rather than the hesitation of guilt and shame.

What goes around comes around. Project leaders who invest in empathy training and formalize supportive working agreements will build a team that can better handle ongoing uncertainty.

Embracing these tenets is no longer a luxury for agile. In a post-COVID Project Economy, applying these skills will help leaders and their teams sustain resilience as they navigate uncertainty. PM

img Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, served on the development team for A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Seventh Edition and authored the 2020 book Untapped Agility. He can be reached at [email protected].
This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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