Managing projects in Ambiguity
Collaboration members will likely have most familiarity with conventional project management approaches that assumes the ability to control variables and predict exact time, materials and cost associated with stages that will result in predictable outcomes. Traditional project management approaches assume a linear progress through stages, with the ability to establish hard and fast boundaries on success at the outset of a project.
However, Public sector initiatives especially must consider a range of outcomes beyond the narrow focus of any project – such as public safety, environmental sustainability and impact on a diverse array of citizens. Further, the ambiguity inherent in an innovative project, plus the reality of collaborations in a public sector context means that projects must be planned and implemented in ways that are ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘fit for context’. The use of human-centred design processes that include some clarity on aspired outcomes for multiple stakeholders can provide a focal point against which to direct decisions in an ambiguous situation.
The conventional project management approach provides some benefits for catalyzing a close consideration of how a project could unfold, thus providing some sense of the resources required, important processes to be used, and possible timeline. However, with a complex collaboration, especially with novel approaches, or new collaborations, these must be balanced with a healthy dose of reality about how many things could go other than expected – with either positive or negative impact. The project charter, terms of reference, and understanding throughout the collaboration members need to recognize that the ‘iron triangle’ requirements of a conventional project management mindset will need to be adapted for the realities of this situation.
In the Complex Collaboration Model, it is expected that project management processes incorporate the reality that, at each stage, the requirement is:
- Complete the task (usually through iterative phase development)
- Build group cohesion through developing relationships and working trust among the representatives (and through them, their organizations and broader community of stakeholders)
- Deepen understanding of the collaboration’s terrain
- Reflect individually and together to learn from the experience of that stage and adapt processes and expectations to suit
- Assess progress and Impact /Value in terms of the experience to that point and in a way that matches the stage of development
- Help representatives to engage and make links ‘up, down and sideways’ in their organization and constituency, so that decisions made for the Regional Hub will be understood and supported throughout the collaboration
- Flag any potential issues with an organization’s funder accountability requirements.
This will inevitably result in reviewing and adapting initial projections as more clarity unfolds.
Building in pre-established Go/NoGo decision points at each stage along the trajectory of the project (sometimes called a Stage-Gate process) can provide the means for organizations to re-assess the likelihood of achieving desired value with the benefit of more information than was available at the beginning of the project. The information and insights gained from the Learning and Adaptation, and Assessing Progress and Outcomes/Value contributes to the information for each collaborator to use in their Go/NoGo decision.