Avoiding project ambiguity

Avoiding project ambiguity

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.

Sealy took its approach to change to a new level when faced with the task of unveiling a new mattress to increase sales in the flagging economy of 2008.

In this instance, Sealy did a few things right. The company created a team with an express goal. It pulled people from multiple departments away from their day jobs and brought them together in a group that was able to execute ideas efficiently.

It threw out the traditional hierarchy that is usually present in these types of groups so that people didn’t have to go through the typical chain of command to accomplish work.

This streamlined the process and allowed a free flow of ideas and innovative new concepts. Their process for innovation also involved getting rid of typical limits, such as keeping costs low or avoiding prototyping.

Without these often confining boundaries, the group was free to explore all options and access unlimited avenues for design. At the end of the process, the product they churned out broke all previous sales records.

Providing some clarity

As a CIO, look at the following areas of ambiguity around the objectives and goals of your IT project and make some plans to reduce or eliminate them to provide more clarity to your business.


  • Vague issues and problems
  • Unreliable data/conflicting information


  • Too many goals that compete with each other
  • Lack of clarity on how success will be measured
  • Not enough resources and time to properly tackle the goal


  • Unclear hierarchy
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Politicking and favouritism


  • Finger pointing; accusations and blame instead of cause
  • Key personnel changing too often
  • Cause and effect poorly understood

Studying these you may find one or two issues you could clarify, but if there are three or more, be prepared for your change effort to slow down significantly.

Aim for clear situations, boundaries, relationships, and processes. By providing the right amount of clarity, you just might find that all of your IT projects will be a raging success.

Daniel Lock is a project and change management specialist and owner of Daniel Lock Consulting.

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Tags McKinseyIT projectsVersionOneDaniel LockSealy

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