Define doubt, uncertainty for best project results

Recent experiences with project management led me to find new meaning in the following quotation by Vroomfondel, a minor philosopher character in Douglas Adams’ 1979 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.”

Projects are late and go over budget because we don’t know what we are doing. If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it a project — we’d call it work, like bookkeeping. And if we really liked what we were doing, we’d call it fun, like being paid to eat chocolate.

Therefore, the fact that IT projects go over budget shouldn’t be any surprise. No project goes as planned and IT is consistently in trouble for this.

But what I want to know is what industry can plan better than IT.

Somehow people have the impression that construction projects are on time. Well, I have a friend who’s been waiting a year (and has already sold her house) to get into a seniors’ residence. I’d say that project’s definitely not on time and likely not on budget.

For more excitement, take the Richmond Airport Vancouver Rapid Transit (RAV) Project. This is a transit line linking downtown Vancouver to the airport, built primarily so the city will not look idiotic during the 2010 Winter Olympics. I have visions of the project failing due to a disagreement about the colour of cars and Vancouver needing to hire 8,000 rickshaw drivers to transport all the athletes to sports venues.

Before RAV even started, it was off schedule.

The group of local politicians who rubber stamped the project kept rejecting it and then voted on it over and over until the plan was approved. Surely, this churn wasn’t intentional. It caused a delay, which led the project team to change the creation of the tunnel from a totally underground activity to a rip-the-top-off-the-road, dig-a-hole-and-put-it-back process (or, “cut-and-cover,” as they call it, which is apparently faster and cheaper). Of course, merchants on the streets under which RAV was to go were expecting far less disruption and have since gone to court.

I would love to see the task entries in the project plan that allowed for that mess to happen. Even better, imagine the drama that would unfold if they dug up mammoth bones in the middle of the route.

IT often blames project delays on the use of new technology. This is a bogus argument because the people-related project management issues mentioned in Frederick Brooks’ book The Mythical Man-Month are the same now as they were in 1975.

But, if you accept the new technology argument, it makes traditional industries look worse. You may recall that other Canadian cities, including Vancouver, have built subway lines. Therefore RAV should be a no-brainer, right? Trust me — everyone in B.C. is waiting for the “RAV a gagillion dollars over budget” headlines with sub-headlines reading something like, “New government blames outgoing hose bags for cost overruns.”

We must embrace Vroomfondel’s concept of rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty — right away. The project management office (PMO) is the best place to put boundaries around doubt and uncertainty. PMOs are expected to analyse a broad spectrum of projects and predict the results. This, of course, is impossible. Most project leaders are lying to themselves and subsequently to the PMO.

If it’s impossible to predict how a project will flow, you will at least be better off working toward reducing doubt and uncertainty.

— Ford is a project manager in Vancouver who is thinking of investing in tarot cards. Contact him at

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