“Today will be different” – an example of too many unknowns

Too many unknowns in your project? Here’s an example of how to stop them swamping a project or support system. It illustrates the importance of timing for big decisions. It also shows intelligence-led project management works.

It’s also a human story about Libby, a business analyst in an online retail company. Libby dreams of having a little bit of order in her life.

This case study is based on real events when there were “too many unknowns”. The names of individuals have been changed, and companies are not identified. Simplifications have been made for the sake of narrative. 

Adrian Cowderoy, 12 May 2023
Adobe stock photo of elegant business woman, used to illustrate "too many unknowns"
Adobe stock photo used to illustrate “too many unknowns”

1. The car without headlights

By habit Libby avoided looking at the dashboard when driving fast. Dashboards were a distraction when there was so much happening. Better to slow down so that everything was in control. That was her philosophy on the road. But at work it wasn’t her who had her foot on the accelerator. The people at the top controlled the speed, and occasionally they grasped at the steering wheel, and they’d also chosen to drive without headlights along a twisting road. Well, that’s what happens at work, she told herself.

Today will be different. The words went around Libby’s mind as she sat at her desk, close to the reclaimed pew from a church. The pew was home to a growing collection of furry toys, selected to irritate anyone on video calls who was being too serious. “Is that professional?” she had once been asked. “Yes,” she replied, “I’m an analyst and it’s important to keep my sense of perspective. Fluffy ears, there, will have a lot to tell me if I get it wrong.” She pointed to a pink bunny wearing a purple bowtie.

That had been weeks ago. Since then there was less laughter. Everyone had become too serious as the problems multiplied. There’d been times when there were lost sales on the website, and senior management had been reacting within seconds to any news. That hurt.

Today will be different, Libby repeated as she clicked to see her project dashboard. She had built the dashboard herself, so she could see what her colleagues were doing … and the things they were not doing. Unlike people who drove without lights and too fast, Libby could see the full picture of all the job tickets that needed her attention. There were dozens, half of which had red flags on them. There were three more than yesterday. And behind them, too many unknowns for her to solve.

She dropped her head to the desk so that her forehead touched the surface. It had been like this for months. Tickets appeared, she tried to remove one or two a day, but more kept increasing. Now everyone was so busy there wasn’t even time to prioritise the tickets.

The fluffy bunny with the bowtie watched unmoving. “What are you staring at?” Libby said to the rabbit. “Have you never seen an unprioritized backlog?” Talking to yourself was important. When working at home it was the only way to stay sane.

Libby picked a ticket, selected because it was an intellectual challenge that needed fresh early-morning thinking. It had also been irritating her for months. Solve this and one more, and it will make my day, she decided.

The tactic worked for a full hour, and then the car without headlights encountered a bend in the road and skidded into the mud. Urgent messages started flashing on her laptop. Black warnings, with dialogue counters that crept up as more people contributed. And now there was a flashing call for an “emergency” video call.Today will not be different, Libby corrected herself. The fluffy rabbit with the bowtie had been useless, as usual. The pain just increased. And now the guys at the top were signing off a new project. We haven’t got this one finished properly.

2. Groundhog day

“What’s the emergency?” she asked as the familiar faces appeared on the screen. “The dialogue in our chat area says the website is showing the wrong images for some products.”

“Yes, we think we have a fix for it.”

“What?” Libby’s mouth dropped open. She regrouped. “Change anything around images and something else may break.”

“Oi!” The sound came from their project manager, John. It sounded a bit like a small pig, though Libby was too polite to say anything. “I love having ideas, too,” John said, “but let’s play fair and do this in sequence.” He was a new addition to the project, replacing someone who had been there for so long that she’d known every detail. John’s style was more laid back. His home background was also different, with swathes of books on a diverse range of subjects. Libby had never heard him criticise anyone, which was really irritating because some people were a pain.

“First,” John continued, “we need a proper description of what the problem is, and who’s impacted by it. Then we go on to talk about what we know, and if there’s been enough research to understand it properly. Then we can have fun analysing options and proposing solutions. And after that there’s an exec decision of whether to proceed.”

Libby caught John after the call. Now there were just the two of them. “So after all that panic, it wasn’t an emergency at all, was it?” Libby said. “It only affects two products, and almost nobody buys them.”

“I enjoyed cutting that investigation short. There’s much bigger things to worry about here.”

“John, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. We’ve got worries from months ago, long before you joined us. We’re permanently fighting fires without making progress. I set myself two tickets a day. If I’m lucky I achieve that, but the new tickets arrive just as fast. There’s no end to it, and the size of our team is shrinking.”

“It’s only shrinking until the new project starts.” John looked away from the camera in the direction that Libby presumed was his office window. Either he was thinking or he was watching the birds at their feeders under the tree. “You’re right, Libby. Could you spare fifteen minutes to sort it out? I’ll drag in a couple of other people to help.”

“Fifteen minutes? I’ve been working on this for months – well much longer, actually. It’s impossible to sort it out quickly.”

John tilted his head to one side and squinted. “Well, why not?”

3. Day end (“too many unknowns”, revisited)

John’s fifteen minutes was right at the end of the day. Libby was exhausted. She’d been interrupted repeatedly, her lunch break had been delayed, and she still needed an hour to finish her tasks.

There were four of them in the call. The sight of her colleagues brought a smile to Libby’s face. It was like seeing friends.

“Basic plot,” John said, “is we’ve got a huge backlog of tickets to resolve. It’s enough to keep us occupied for months.”

“It’ll be many months, given the new project starts soon.”

“Exactly. Loads of our worries could be resolved by that project. So my thought is, what if we shuffle everything we can into that project, and just do the things that are genuinely urgent? These bits, for instance.” He switched to share his screen so he could display a list.

Libby frowned at the list. “There are bits here that are wrong. But, yes, the idea is right. It would make it manageable. What I don’t get is, this is a scope change. How do you plan to sell it to our internal customers and the senior management?”

“That’s the easy part. We can’t cope at the moment – that’s become obvious to everyone. We’re wearing people out and creating disappointments.”

Libby’s frown deepened. “We tried asking for a scope change before you joined. It didn’t work out.”

“The timing was wrong. Now it’s different. The pain is bleeding obvious, and the new project has been approved. What do you all think?” Libby raised a paw – hers, not the rabbit’s. “I vote for today being different.” They looked confused. “Look, I can face it all if there’s an end in sight. And as you keep saying when we talk about this technology, there’s going to be more big surprises.”

Commentary on “Too many unknowns”

This story was written to illustrate what happens in intelligence-led project management when there are too many things that were not understood. That’s “known unknowns”, or “unquantifiable risks” in project speak. Where there are loads of known unknowns, there are usually surprises waiting to come – the unknown unknowns.

Managing too many unknowns requires extra effort, especially around research, finding solutions and internal communications. That’s where intelligence-led project management comes in. It’s an extension to agile project managements such as Kanban, Scrum, DSDM.

The same technique also applies to classic projects following systems such as Prince 2. The brief discussion above would have been followed by a short description of a project exception, to be approved by the steering committee. (For more, see https://www.stakeholdermap.com/project-templates/prince-2-exception-report.html ) The snag for projects without agile disciplines, is that they seldom have the mechanisms and skills needed for the research and communications, so everything takes longer and costs more.

Intelligence-led project management is designed for cases where there are too many unknowns.