I had a really cool opportunity to go river rafting down the Zambezi. It was an interesting learning experience because it was all about navigating rapids in an unfamiliar environment with a team of people that I’d never met. Basically “navigating uncertainty” in a team context!” Kassie Paschke

White-water rafting

Digital drawing. Vicky Peel 2022

Kassie’s original photograph and story of rafting down the Zambezi got us thinking about how teams navigate the choppy waters of the unknown on a project. We’ve already discovered that while the challenges of uncertainty in our lives often have a negative impact on our well being, productive doubt can help us reframe negative thinking into something positive and highly creative.

So can uncertainty be a force for good for a team working their way through a complex project?

What’s needed to most effectively manage the unknowns and produce the best possible outcome?

We talked to our team who have been working on the Back Office Planning Project (BoPs) with Southwark Council for some of their thoughts and experiences of working on a complex and long running project. Did anyone fall out of the boat? What did people need along the way? Did everyone safely reach their destination?

We found there were four key elements that have an impact on how teams manage uncertainty and complexity:

  • vision and purpose
  • effective and honest communication
  • the storytelling process
  • agile ways of working

Vision and Purpose

“At the beginning BoPS was much like any other project”… “the early phases of discovery and alpha are designed to reduce that uncertainty. We accept we don’t understand the domain or the context, we don’t have the relationships, and things are often very complex.

The theory is that through research and inquiry we learn quickly about the problem space and through prototyping we explore and test some potential solutions. The idea is that by the time you start building something, you have much more clarity and can progress quickly.” Martyn, Head of Product.

As Martyn describes, in the early stages of any project there are processes in place designed to reduce uncertainties as far as possible. But there will always be ambiguity and unknowns, particularly on large scale and complex projects with multiple stakeholders and dependencies.

Having a clear, shared vision and purpose for the project was a key theme for better managing the unknowns. When there is a vision in place and a shared understanding of the purpose and meaning - the “why we are doing this” - then the capacity and resilience of the team to ride out challenging uncertainties is much easier. When you know what you’re aiming for and why, the “how” is the problem solving challenge which designers and developers alike relish. In the uncertainty lies the opportunity to find creative solutions.

Having a problem to solve and not necessarily knowing how to solve it straight away, that’s part of the fun” for developer Ben. As in life, not having a why is the worst kind of uncertainty for a team. In the ‘why’ lies the meaning of the work and when you have a meaning you are much better prepared for the challenges.

Purpose and vision can and often do change on a project for lots of different reasons. Our designer Tom points out that it’s fine for a vision to change because if something has to fit a particular vision then the opportunities for learning and discovering are limited. But if that vision does change, then to better manage the uncertainties that arise from that change. It’s important to “articulate why you’re doing something and you need to articulate why you’ve changed from doing that.

The boat might need to change course but the motivation to keep paddling is driven by why you’re doing it in the first place. A change in visionary leadership can also create uncertainty. Every team needs someone whose role focuses on strategy and vision. Michael Mentessi (Department for Levelling Up Housing and Community, DLUHC) reflected that there is inevitable change and churn on large, complex projects where there are a number of dependencies, and that can be difficult. But when there is change in visionary leadership, it definitely creates uncertainty and is felt as a loss. It’s easy for something to lose its way, but we are nothing if not adaptable as Michael told us, someone else comes in who might have a different take, sees different angles and you get something different out of it. Long running projects will move through transitional periods and different phases, either as a result of change in vision, team members, scope or needs. Transition is by its nature uncertain. Ali nicely summarises the experience of a period of uncertainty on the project where there was a transition between phases and team movement and with that a loss of vision and direction.

So, my experience has felt particularly uncertain because there was this transitional moment moving between phases of projects. Also people moving on and off the project. I think as designers we deal with uncertainty a lot or as a team we deal with uncertainty a lot but I think what made this project feel particularly uncertain at that time is that we just didn’t have a very clear idea of what the vision wasIn that shifting everything became uncertain: what we were doing and what the purpose of the project was.” Ali, Designer and Researcher.

Communication

“If things are not going well and there are issues, I’m comfortable about saying this is a mess, I’m certain it’s a mess, it doesn’t mean that things are bad...systems over time become messy, that’s a certainty, all you can do is be honest” Michael, DLUHC

Communication was another theme that clearly came out of our conversations. Unsurprisingly, how we communicate with each other affects how we feel, how we work and how successfully we interact. Good communication mitigates conflict, helps increase our engagement with each other and creates better relationships. It’s no different for a team, particularly on a large scale project where communication is key to managing uncertainty more successfully. For the BoPs team it was clear that successful communication means a balance between confidence and vulnerability, trust and honesty. Being open and transparent means there is less room for misunderstanding, issues aren’t hidden and assumptions can be challenged. This is a core value of the way we work at Unboxed and a way of working we are keen to share with our clients. Blockages, suspicions and unknowns are exacerbated when our communication isn’t working well, teams become demotivated and ultimately the project doesn’t succeed.

"Having the courage to show up when you can't control the outcome" is one aspect of Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability. And vulnerability plays a key role in how we communicate with each other effectively, particularly in times of doubt, when we may feel we have little control of an outcome. To communicate with a level of authentic vulnerability means we are able to be more compassionate and to listen better, important tools for trying to understand a problem and produce a creative outcome. If teams feel empowered to say when something isn’t going well, or to say “I don’t know” then problems can be addressed earlier, instead of hiding or masking issues for fear of the response.

Knowing your team and listening well means understanding the best way to communicate with individuals. For Michael it means being quite human about the process: if you’re open and honest about all of the things you’re finding difficult personally and that you're struggling with, tempered with humour, people appreciate that, it encourages them to feel they can say what’s going on.

The more effectively you communicate, the better the connections made with team members and stakeholders and the more easily you are able to rebuild when things become difficult, when there are transition moments and times of uncertainty. Ali described it really well when she said “to work well and to work well with uncertainty, you’ve got to be working together.” And when that breaks down it’s much harder to work well with uncertainty.

Effective communication also means being able to challenge behaviour and attitudes that are unacceptable and to be able to ask for help and acknowledge when you’re struggling and don’t know the answers.

Storytelling

I think actually what we’ve had to do as a team is help create ways to tell stories about what we’re doing. Document decisions that have been made. Tom, Designer

Storytelling is a powerful tool for making sense of things, particularly during periods of uncertainty. We all tell stories about ourselves, our experiences and our work and it's no different for a team working together to deliver a complex project. To tell a story or create a narrative isn’t a way of obfuscating the truth or making things up, but a way to create a sense of control over our understanding and uncertainty. Documenting and articulating past, present and future thinking and decision making is creating a narrative. Through effective storytelling teams and Product Owners can create and enhance relationships with project stakeholders and help to bridge any gaps between knowledge and communication. It can help to keep the all important vision on track, particularly during periods of uncertainty and change. And it can help to simplify complexities and keep people connected.

It’s a narrative...sometimes it’s positive to tell a negative narrative to elicit change and sometimes it’s better to tell the positive narrative and not labour the negative” Michael, Product Support

That is sometimes the balancing act for a Product Owner or Delivery Manager. Depending on different needs at different times, telling a story can help to mitigate the damage that uncertainty can do to both the product delivery itself and the people involved. For team members storytelling can be a protective force.

Storytelling in documentation form helps to create a narrative that anyone can pick up. As we’ve already seen, change and churn can contribute to the uncertainty of a project and when team members change, as they often do on long running projects, having collective stories that document the processes is helpful for consistency; why decisions are made, why for example we decided to go and speak to some planning officers for example, or why that bit of code was written. When the end result is there ready for the user, that's a story, but what is the story behind how it happened? How was that goal achieved? If you can’t tell the story from the start, it makes it difficult to onboard people which in turn creates more uncertainty.

....putting why we’re doing something down in one place so that someone can pick it up later. It tells the story about a conversation that was had before……I think what was happening was that people were talking and were open but they were their own stories. There were no collective stories about what we’re doing things for. And I think there’s still a bit of a problem in that we’ve got lots of loose pages of a story but not in a book and they don’t have a contents page” Tom, Designer

Agile processes

“Uncertainty is never something you are going to fully remove. That’s why you do Agile. Small bits then you test” Steph, Developer

Inconsistency, change and uncertainty are inevitable on a project as we’ve already seen. Agile doesn’t assume certainty, what you know right now is less than what you might know tomorrow. One of the biggest advantages of the Agile approach is managing uncertainties, or rather, being comfortable with knowing that you don’t know the answers and you might also not know what you’re going to get. That in itself for partners and customers can be a challenge.

If you’re building a software product, you want to know what it’s going to do and that it’s going to fulfil the requirements. The Agile approach takes a look at how things are currently done, talking to people, making observations and hypotheses. Sometimes we are going to be wrong but we are going to learn and through that learning we are going to make something better. Getting clarity or certainty on what you’re going to build and how you’re going to build it is a challenge, particularly on a complex project with multiple stakeholders like the BoPs project. So what we do is to go through a series of processes, from researching and discovering, prototyping and iterating to designing and developing.

“Maybe it’s not a vulnerability but it’s just like saying it as it is. Going, ‘let’s explore.’ I think sometimes we go ‘this is the way we should do it’ and ‘this is the decision that’s going to be made’ instead of ‘I think this is the right decision for now and maybe let’s test it’ or ‘let’s test a couple of different options and see where we can go.’ And then in that uncertainty, you get clarity.” Ali, Designer

The Agile process allows for short learning cycles, if something isn’t working then there is capacity to test and respond to change quickly. Things can and do go wrong in so many ways that inconsistency is something that we have to live with, but it can be managed much better with agile and quick development cycles and a regular process of reflection and knowledge sharing in a highly collaborative way. It’s a human approach.

“Uncertainty is a loaded term in the vocabulary, it’s perceived negatively in business, but I don’t see it as uncertainty, I’m certain we’re on a project and I’m certain we’re building software, I’m certain things are getting better, I’m certain we’re learning stuff every couple of weeks, ….. I’m uncertain about the direction of travel and I’m uncertain as to what we’ll have in 6 months time, I’m uncertain whether planning will be a success, these are all unknowns to me, but I’m certain the team are working well together, we’re producing stuff that’s good, so I can translate that into confidence and certainty, but it’s a different type of certainty. It’s a system that’s reliant on trust I suppose.” Michael, Product Support

The End of the River Run

We already knew that uncertainty and the things we don’t yet know are difficult to manage, and we discovered that teams working on projects experience exactly the same things. Having meaning and purpose, whatever that looks like, enables us to lead happier and more fulfilled lives, to be more resilient in the inevitable face of uncertainty. The same for teams in the workplace. No matter how complex or difficult the challenge may be, it is much easier to face together when there is a vision that is clear. For Kassie and her team the vision and purpose may have been clear; to get to the end, to embrace the fear and enjoy the ride, and to experience the exhilaration of learning.

We discovered that teams, just as in our personal lives, function so much better when the communication is good; honest and open, respectful and trusting. With all team members bought into this way of communicating with each other, they can negotiate the manifold complexities and unknowns that they face. I imagine communication was key on that raft! Each person knowing their role, trusting their fellow team members, and communicating instructions openly and honestly to achieve the end goal.

And what will the story be they tell themselves and the wider world when they’ve completed their journey? Will it help them make sense of the experience they’ve just had and of themselves? It will at the very least be a good story to tell to colleagues, friends and family.

It is clear from all we have learned, that uncertainty is always to be expected and that processes like Agile ways of working embrace the unknown in the expectation that the best and most effective solutions will be found. Well, that’s what we keep striving for as a company, in our teams and with our customers.

Written by Vicky Peel