Uncertainty is Certain: Promoting Healthy Uncertainty on Agile Projects

Fear of uncertainty is natural and human. Few of us would be happy not knowing when we or our loved ones could eat again, or whether bombs might drop on us tonight.

Yet some people joyously embrace particular uncertain situations, seeing opportunities to exercise and hone their skills. Others detest all uncertainty and seek to deny it or will it away.

Many managers discourage behaviour that exposes uncertainty. They don’t want to hear about risks, and they don’t like people asking too many questions. In their minds, discovery and exploration promote uncertainty because they’re unpredictable and uncontrollable. They seek absolutes even for Agile projects:

  • Immovable delivery dates and fixed costs

  • Mandated “best practices” and controlled processes that (they believe) produce predictable results

  • “Hard” numbers that purport to tell them exactly what’s going on

Agile practitioners know that uncertainty is inescapable in software development (as in life), and it is better to embrace it on our projects than to run away from it. There are no best practices, and the only responsible answer is usually, “It depends.” It’s our job to expose uncertainty, and to help reduce it when possible.

But Agile practitioners are not immune to human feelings. We also can fall into denial and too-easy answers.

In this interactive workshop, we’ll do group exercises and debriefs to tackle the questions:

  • How can we grow our own tolerance for uncertainty and learn to embrace it?

  • How can we promote a healthy attitude to uncertainty on our Agile projects?
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Outline/structure of the Session

Following an introduction, the workshop consists of 2 principal small group exercises, each followed by a debrief. Each exercise is allocated 30 minutes, typically 20 minutes for the exercise and 10 minutes for the debrief. Depending on the number of participants and the energy in the room (which will drive the length of the debriefs), there could potentially be a 3rd exercise -- but at other conferences this has always ended up as a suggestion for each individual to follow up with after the workshop. The session ends with an overall debrief focusing on what participants plan to do at work with what they've learned in the workshop.

  • 10-minute introduction, with general discussion
    • what do we think is “healthy uncertainty”?
    • are all software projects characterized by uncertainty?
    • if so, why
    • what are some of the negative ways people (managers, team members) react to project uncertainty
    • why are they uncomfortable (causes of discomfort)

  • Exercise 1: Communicating about uncertainty
    • Given the question, "How can we communicate project uncertainty honestly in a way that will help people hear and deal with it?"
    • Each group works to suggest at least 3 ways we could improve communication about uncertainty

  • Exercise 2: Growing our own tolerance for uncertainty
    • Given the question, "How can we learn to be comfortable (or at least not too uncomfortable) with uncertainty on our projects and in our lives?"
    • Each group works to outline some things we can do in our everyday lives and work to help ourselves feel more secure and grow our tolerance for uncertainty wherever we find it.

  • Final debrief

Suggested takeaway exercise is for each individual to draw -- in any way meaningful to them -- their own support network, i.e., the things in their lives (people, places, activities…) that help them to feel secure and supported.

Learning Outcome

My aim is for each participant to leave with tips and techniques for dealing with project uncertainty positively, and without undue anxiety or stress

  • recognizing that some level of uncertainty is inevitable at some or all stages of most projects
  • communicating uncertainty -- and the ways we intend to manage/mitigate it -- honestly to stakeholders
  • recognizing and reinforcing their own strengths for managing uncertainty

Target Audience

all Agile practitioners, at any level (I've said intermediate above, but the workshop is useful for experts and beginners too)


no prerequisites

schedule Submitted 3 weeks ago

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