How to Deal with Uncertainty on Long Projects

Friday, February 21, 2014

Many long projects start off with a lot of uncertainty. You may not be 100% sure of the resource requirements, the final deliverables, the cost, schedule, etc. There may be many risks. The good news is that project managers deal with the uncertainty associated with large projects all the time, and it is very likely that you can be successful. Here are a couple tips to consider, depending on what you think will work best in your situation.
  1. Break the work into smaller pieces
    The first thing to do with a long project is to break it down into smaller pieces if possible. Although you may be unclear about the work to be done in the next year, you should at least know what you will need to do over the next few months. Instead of defining a two year project, for example, start by defining a project that will cover only the first phase. After that project, you can redefine and estimate the next major phase as a separate project. You will also be able to more easily plan and manage each of the shorter projects.
  2. Plan at a higher level as the planning horizon gets further out
    Many organizations will not allow you to break a large project into a set of smaller ones. Many companies only want to pay for one project, and track one project. 
    The next idea is to estimate and plan the work for the entire timeframe, but plan at a higher-level the further out in the future you get. You should have a firm and detailed workplan for the next three months, but then the planning will be at a higher and higher level. You have a framework for completing the project, but only the short-term activities are planned out in detail. This is probably the approach most project managers take on long projects.
  3. Use multiple estimating techniques
    The classic estimating technique is to build a work breakdown structure, estimate the work associates with the lowest level activities and then add everything back up for the final overall estimate. This approach does not work well when you are not sure exactly what the work is a long way into the future. Fortunately, there are other estimating techniques that will help you cross-check your estimated effort, cost and duration.
    • Rely on outside experts to review your Charter and schedule to see if they think your estimates are reasonable.
    • See whether there have been similar projects in your company where you can review the prior schedule and estimates to see how they line up with your project.
    • Create a parametric estimate based on some type of reasonable model.
    It is best if you can use multiple estimating techniques to increase the accuracy of your final estimates.
  4. Apply rigorous risk management 

    We have already discussed some ways to deal with the uncertainty of schedule and effort estimating risks. There will be many other risks as well. All of the risks need to be identified, and then a specific plan can be put into place to respond to the risks. Every month, you update the risk plan to ensure known risks are being managed and new risks are identified.
You are right to be concerned about the unknowns associated with long projects. However, there are a number of techniques that can be used to make you feel more comfortable. These means you have applied your best thinking to plan the project out as best you can, and then rely on good communication processes, risk management and schedule management to discover the detailed nature of the project as you progress.


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