Monday, November 16, 2009

Expectations Around Uncertainty

Back in September (10th), Mike Cottmeyer posted “Managing Expectations about Uncertainty” and noted that traditional project management views it as important to “manage uncertainty out of the project.” On the other hand, Agile efforts “[r]ather than managing OUT uncertainty” choose “managing FOR uncertainty.” I like that phrasing of the Agile approach. Mike did point out that “both worldviews have a place depending upon your context and problem domain” and that it is “up to us [as Project Managers] to recognize the nature of the projects we are working on and choose the strategy most likely yield a desirable outcome.”

I am inclined to say that "uncertainty" early in a project can be divided into (a) things we cannot (now) know and (b) things we should be able to know. I believe the more traditional approach takes the latter as its view. That is, the traditional view is that “due diligence” should be able to reduce uncertainty to nearly zero, leaving few (or no) things unknown. Thus, Agile’s approach to "embrace uncertainty" suggests irresponsible risk-taking in the traditional view because insufficient effort is expended to eliminate all the uncertainty possible. In this view, uncertainty is lack of knowledge that should be corrected by better initial effort. I believe the Agile approach looks at (a) as its view of early uncertainty. That is, there are things we really cannot know early on, may not be able to know until work has been done and feedback collected, or may not end up needing to know by the time we get there.

Now the word “uncertain” suggests being aware of something but not totally sure about it. If you are totally unaware of something (or it is something that is truly unknowable), talking of being “certain” or “uncertain” makes little sense. The traditional view of “uncertainty” carries a lot of weight, then, within that worldview if it means things we are aware of but do not understand deeply enough. Consider the large number of lists of potential project risks and failure causes that have been compiled over the years. In effect, they say, “Look, all of these things have been noted in the past and could impact your project. You need to explore them and become ‘certain’ about whether or not they have meaning/impact on your work.” Hence, “due diligence” involves being thorough about considering all these factors since we can and “should have known” this early on during planning for our project.

The Agile view is that it is wasteful to try to drive out all uncertainty early because it cannot be done. This appears to the more traditional view as irresponsible for the reasons noted above. An Agile approach relies more on short delivery cycles, than detailed up front planning, to address uncertainty. As with many other things, an Agile approach advocates an incremental, iterative way of addressing uncertainty, increasing detail as the events requiring it loom closer and moving from an implication of "early" to merely "before." From an Agile perspective, “due diligence” includes avoiding wasteful anticipation of risks/problems as much as responsible consideration of them.

This is not to say all early consideration of risk/uncertainty is to be avoided. However, from an Agile perspective, the details regarding how certain issues should be addressed can be delayed until more knowledge is available to the project. Agile projects move ahead with what is known while information on what isn’t known is developed.

In the end, of course, if an Agile project goes bad because of an unplanned for issue, the traditional view can say “See, we told you.” Equally, if a traditional project never encounters issues it expends effort to make plans for, the Agile view can say “See, we told you.” I am reminded of a talk Kent Beck gave at XP2006 in Oulu, Finland where he discussed “responsible development.” I think “certainty” and “due diligence” are things which walk that line of what is and is not “responsible.”

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