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Agile/Scrum, Change Management, Project Management, Systems Thinking

Managing Projects in a VUCA world

I’ve written previously about the models developed by Turner and Cochrane, Dombkins and Obeng which classify 4 types of project  depending on how much you know about what a project is trying to achieve and the extent to which you know how to go about the project. Eddie Obeng’s categories of Fog, Quest, Movie-making and Painting by numbers are more memorable than Turner/Cochrane’s Type 1, 2, 3 and 4, or Dombkins’ Type A, B, C and D projects.


There’s a different approach for starting, designing and managing each of these types of project and, I feel, that’s an important point for Sponsors and Project Managers to bear in mind. There is no “one size fits all” approach and anyone wedded to a single methodology is likely to run into all sorts of problems.

I’ve also written about the VUCA model – we live in a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA is a term coined by the US military and it is a useful mnemonic to remember the nature of the world we live and work in today. Those VUCA principles clearly also apply to the world of projects (and programmes).

Volatility refers to the increasing rate and magnitude of change; all of which can disrupt a project when they occur, often out of the blue.

Uncertainty refers to a lack of clarity over the future and our inability to predict what might happen. It’s a result of operating in volatile conditions and is often reflected in a lack of data or information with which to make decisions. Rational decision tools and approaches are helpful in dealing with uncertainty.

Complexity refers to the fact that there is often a multitude of interconnected factors and variables associated with making a decision. Most projects don’t exist in isolation; they may well be part of a wider system. While some data or information may be available, it may not be easy to analyse or to draw reliable conclusions about the future. The information may also hide the potential for unanticipated consequences to emerge.

Ambiguity refers to the fact that there may be no “right answer” in a given situation. This is often the case in multi-stakeholder environments where there are multiple, often conflicting, requirements. Reaching consensus is difficult when there is ambiguity and it is often a consequence of complexity which increases the options available. Resolving ambiguity is more dependent on subjective, people-oriented, approaches than on the use of more rational tools. Asking for more information may just increase complexity and make things more ambiguous!

It occurred to me that mapping the VUCA model onto the 4 types of project could be a helpful way for Project Managers to see how they might need to approach different situations. The ways each of the 4 project types can be managed gives us some practical ideas for coping with a VUCA world.

I was therefore pleased to find someone else had already mapped out some of this thinking. (Thiry, M. (2011). Ambiguity management: the new frontier. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2011—North America, Dallas, TX. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.)

VUCA Projects

Dealing with Low Uncertainty, Low Ambiguity Projects:

  • Use lessons learnt and best practice from previous projects
  • Use a (mostly) linear process (waterfall); the focus is on “management” and project controls
  • Make decisions about plans and resources early in the lifecycle
  • Most risks and issues are predictable and easily resolved

Dealing with Low Uncertainty, High Ambiguity Projects:

  • Use rolling wave planning; use available information but allow detail to emerge as the project progresses
  • Plan for decision-making and option-selection at key gates; engage stakeholders early – no surprises
  • Focus on milestone planning and negotiating the next steps/phases with key decision-makers; requires good negotiation skills
  • Try hard, fail fast; agile approaches such as Scrum with sprints may be useful to help develop options

Dealing with High Uncertainty, Low Ambiguity Projects:

  • Adopt a clear, defined process (lifecycle model); get sign-off of deliverables before progressing to the next stage
  • Devote more time during initiation to get clarity on objectives and success criteria; emphasis is on sense-making
  • Focus on creativity and drawing on experts’ opinions and assumptions about how things will progress; requires good networking skills
  • An agile approach such as Kanban may be more appropriate to manage workflow through the project stages

Dealing with High Uncertainty, High Ambiguity Projects:

  • Requires inspirational leadership and subjective, rather than rational, decision-making; detailed, early planning is impossible
  • Aim to get clarity on what must be achieved before deciding how to design and manage the project; use problem-structuring tools
  • Use multi-stakeholder engagement techniques to work though possibilities and to enable a “best” answer to emerge; focus on “value”
  • It may be appropriate to run with, and test, multiple options and learn from what works, until a preferred solution emerges; agile approaches are appropriate









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