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Avoiding project ambiguity

Daniel Lock | Aug. 28, 2013
Want people to use your new system? Provide more clarity around objectives and goals, says Daniel Lock.

Historically, organisational and change management issues related to IT projects were often under-estimated or ignored entirely. In fact, people issues collectively accounted for the majority of project failures.

More recently, the people factor — at least on the project side — has been addressed with "agile" project management methodologies. Indeed, a recent survey by VersionOne found 84 per cent of organisations were using some form of or toolset from the agile playbook.

Although agile methods have helped reduce the number of project failures, 17 per cent go so badly that they can threaten a company's existence, according to a 2012 McKinsey study.

That study also found that large IT projects, on average, run 45 per cent over budget and 7 per cent over time, while delivering 56 per cent less value than predicted.

While not flattering, it is getting better. So given the extra effort, what's happening? Change management has played a big part by focusing on the achievement of desired outcomes of the change by supporting people through their transitions.

But if there's one single root cause that prevents user adoption and usage, it's uncertainty caused by a project and how it is managed. Economists call it "ambiguity aversion", the malaise that results from a lack of clarity.

Behavioural economists have known for years that people are more likely to invest in bonds and deposits rather than stocks because of the perceived ambiguity of stock price volatility even though over time, the stock market outperforms cash investments.

This difference between how people make a risk assessment when probabilities are known (getting 3.25 per cent return on my savings), than when probabilities are unknown (getting 11 per cent from stocks over time) is significant. People will avoid making a decision altogether when faced with such uncertainty.

In our organisations, most of the decisions we face are a mix between risk and ambiguity. But what is ambiguity and how is it experienced in the workplace?

Although formally, it has to do with uncertainty about the distribution of probabilities, psychologists tend to define ambiguity as the subjective experience of missing information relevant to a prediction.

This insight about ambiguity is why people treat ambiguous, inexact, incomplete, or vague information not just as insufficient, but actually discount the data altogether. The frustrating implication for project managers is that as a result of the discounting of ambiguous information, people behave as if they have no information at all.

Good change leaders must become good at converting the ambiguous goals and plans into concrete and specific steps and messages to ensure behaviour change they want.

For example, take mattress company Sealy. When it comes to breaking down ambiguous situations and implementing change, this organisation excelled.


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