De-emphasizing The Past; Emphasizing The Future

A comment on a recent article of mine summarized a significant challenge that many managers and executives face: the tendency to report on the past, rather than anticipate what will happen in the future.

In a discussion of project management tools and how to effectively visualize project information, the commenter concluded:

“I don’t think the tools themselves are necessarily bad, but a lot of the culture around using them is based on reporting the past rather than forecasting the future. It is the future that our stakeholders are curious about and that is what we need to try to communicate.”

There is a great deal of truth in this. Particularly when projects are encountering difficulty, there is a tendency to explain what happened and why, rather than analyzing the consequences for the future. This can be rooted in defensiveness, justification or simple explanation of what happened, but in all instances it is looking in the rear view mirror. What tends to get lost is an understanding of what the current circumstances mean in terms of what happens next.

Yet it is the future that matters. It is the outcome that our customers care about. They want to know that they are going to get, when they are going to get it and how much it will cost to get there. They are seeking assurances that the results will be attained, and that they will be able to use those results for their intended purpose.

In large part, this is the challenge that managing projects and delivering programs needs to overcome. The design—and, in many instances, the application—of tools is focussed more on explaining and monitoring the past than it is on anticipating and addressing the future. We place far greater emphasis on tracking progress spent and expenditures incurred, rather than attempting to improve the quality of our forecasts.

Even when we do forecast the future, it is typically by distilling our anticipation of what will happen to a single number. Projects are inherently risky, fraught with uncertainty and subject to a variety of influences. And yet our estimates are presented as if we have absolute clarity of what will occur in the future, even as we re-forecast to accommodate the problems of the past. We replace one estimate, now undermined, with another number of no better provenance.

The problem of how to manage uncertainty is one that we fundamentally need to address. The answer to this problem, however, is not going to be found through doubling down on our current techniques, and presuming that if we just try harder we can develop more accurate estimates that will stand the test of reality. We need to fundamentally rethink how we consider projects, and in particularly our approach to uncertainty and ambiguity.

Specifically, we need techniques that consciously embrace and bring to the forefront the level of uncertainty associated with our projects, and our forecasts. We need to be clear about what we know, and how much we still don’t know. We need to be honest about what can—and likely will—go wrong on our projects, and what will need to be done to adapt, respond and course correct along the way.

Changing how we think about the future requires not just a change in tools and how we use and apply them. It also requires a change in mindset. We need to shift our perspective and our approach in how we think about, how we communicate and how we respond to our projects. This is true for project managers, and it is particularly true for sponsors and steering committees.

Uncertainty cannot be brushed under the carpet or swept off the table. To be successful, we need to embrace uncertainty and place it front and centre in our discussions, in our processes and most particularly in our minds.

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