Seemingly negative surprises have often been perceived as insurmountable, but that’s not always the situation in project management.

By innovatively spotting opportunities in uncertainties, the results often exceed initial expectations in budgeting, quality and scheduling.

That’s the lesson according to an academic report published in 2013.

“Challenging Classic Project Management: Turning Project Uncertainties into Business Opportunities” was authored by Thomas G. Lechler, Stevens Institute of Technology; Barbara H. Edington, St. Francis College; and Ting Gao, Stevens Institute of Technology.

The publisher is the Project Management Journal, vol. 43, no. 6. It was summarized by Booz & Company at

The researchers delved into 20 major projects that encountered at least three negative surprises.

They ranged in duration from eight months to three years with budgets between $500,000 and $69 million.

More than 50 percent focused on IT or product development.

Others included:

— Business realignment projects

— Clinical trials

— Construction

— Feasibility studies

–Market prediction models

— R&D

Researchers concluded there are six types of surprises to confront:

1. Contextual turbulence: external changes set off by shifts in the markets, for example, or new legal or regulatory rules

2. Stakeholder fluctuations: shifts in the fortunes of customers, vendors, investors, and others

3. Technological uncertainty: factors that can affect the functionality of products in different markets, among other challenges

4. Project uncertainty: unrecognized complexities that crop up after a project has started

5. Organizational uncertainty: ripple effects from unexpected corporate mergers or spin-offs, for example

6. Malpractice: significant deviations from accepted project management standards

According to the authors, project managers evaluated the surprises in these ways: Were they used as positive developments or not? What were the unexploited opportunities?

Sixty percent of the project managers dealt effectively with 75 percent of the surprises for strong results. They “led to a redefinition of a project’s initial baseline,” wrote the researchers. Fifty-eight percent identified positive financial returns.

The benefits included: Spotting new initiatives, developing new process and applying new technologies.

Four types of opportunities

For a “broader range of potential opportunities,” the researches recommend focusing on four groups:

1. Technical innovation. When negative surprises rear their ugly heads, don’t give up. Look for new testing solutions to save money that will also serve as an inexpensive model for future initiatives.

2. Implementation processes. In the event of a surprise, don’t panic. Develop a less-complex method to save money and time. Research showed post-implementation problems decreased by 75 percent.

3. New business. In one case study, a sponsor retired which led to lack of interest in the project. So, the project managers rolled up their sleeves and networked their way to a new sponsor. The new backer facilitated an opening to a larger audience, which meant new business opportunities.

4. Future projects. Once you solve a problem in a department, look for ways to apply the solution in different departments. One of the businesses solved a challenge in implementing software, and used the process for other successes.

Again, the project managers weren’t successful in all cases. For example, one situation lacked a tracking system. A second case led to an unfortunate conclusion because of a surprise merger that resulted in staff duplication of effort.

Senior management’s role

For success, the authors said “exceptional and innovative decisions” necessitate involvement of all stakeholders, especially senior executives.

“In these situations,” wrote the authors, “project managers should take the role of champions and use their communication skills to bring these opportunities to the decision-making level.”

Agreed. It’s important for project managers to manage the boss for better performance.

The researchers also discouraged traditional risk-management thinking by senior managers.

“In situations of uncertainty,” concluded the authors, “the adherence to a baseline that was defined without the knowledge of uncertainty could lead to neglected opportunities, forsaken value opportunities, and consequently the potential for project failure.”

True, there are eight best practices in setting goals to alleviate uncertainty.

Things aren’t always as they seem, so look for ways to benefit from adversity – even the apparent obstacles to success in project management.

From the Coach’s Corner, recommended reading:

Leadership and Planning Tips for Successful Project Management –In truth, projects fail because they’re not managed. Yes, there are varying degrees, but in reality they’re either managed or they’re not. The project manager must possess 11 leadership attributes to manage the team, stay on track and keep within budget.

18 Valuable Tips to Win in Office Politics — Most people troubled by office politics are too focused on the behavior of their adversaries. Stop giving away your personal power. Don’t think or act like a victim. Here are 18 valuable tips to win in office politics.

How to Eliminate Destructive Conflict for Better Teamwork — There are two types of conflict. For better teamwork and higher performance, it’s true that constructive conflict works. Usually, the best ideas evolve when ideas are discussed and debated. But when employees fail to exercise self control and their egos get in the way, emotions flare and cliques are formed in the workplace. That’s destructive conflict.

“We will either find a way, or make one.”



Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.