Nov 162009

“We have seen reengineering, transformation, re-invention, new, speed, competencies, teachable points of view, destroying your business, BHAG (big hairy audacious goals)—they’re all about what is supposed to happen. But very little has been said about exactly how you do it.” This passage is from a interesting and slightly irreverent book from Phillip Hodgson and Randall White, “Relax, it’s only Uncertainty: Lead the way when the way is changing,” Prentice Hall 2001.

Hodgson and White provide more than a look at the necessity of dealing with risk and uncertainty, they give sound advice about how to build the skill sets needed to deal with that uncertainty. “Leadership is what crosses the frontier between what we did yesterday and what we’ll do tomorrow,” they say. “We’ll argue in this book that the real mark of a leader is confidence with uncertainty—the ability to admit to it and deal with it.”

There irreverence extends to metaphors popularized by other authors. “I’m supposed to charge with the buffaloes, swim with the dolphins, create a burning platform, hunt with the tigers, bite with the sharks. All as written up by a Chinese warrior-philosopher, in no more than a minute, rounded off by seven homely stories of effective chief executives who made good on Mars and Venus.”

Before launching into the behaviors and skills needed to operate effectively in our uncertain world, the authors pose six questions that illustrate the damaging illusions of our twentieth century approaches to management:

  • Why do you believe you are in control?
  • Why do you behave as if you can predict the future, its consequences and outcomes?
  • Why do you think that because you’ve done it before and it worked that it will work again?
  • Why do you believe everything important is measurable?
  • Why do you think that words like leadership, management, and change have the same meaning for everyone?
  • Why do you think that reducing uncertainty will necessarily increase certainty?

Part of being agile, in fact a large part of being agile, is attitude, an attitude that leads one to seriously consider each of these questions anew. For example, the old fable that says something like, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t management it,” requires serious reconsideration when exploring on the frontier of what is possible.

The authors then go on to discuss eight enablers and eight restrainers to operating under uncertainty. For anyone interested in learning about how to handle project uncertainty, or to help their team deal with uncertainty, I recommend picking up a copy of this book.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  One Response to “Relax—It’s only Uncertainty”

  1. avatar

    Confidence is good answer of the six questions.

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