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Once upon a time there was a project plan

Everyone is familiar with the situation: suddenly, something happens that was not in any written or imagined plan, and that could not be predicted even from a huge endeavor. Often it is behind a chain of events that were not or could not have been perceived, and they throw the planning out the window: the software operates differently than expected despite the best testing, the infrastructure malfunctions right when the go-live has been prepared, or an unexpected storm floods the building pit.

We know that the future is uncertain. But when something that wasn’t on our radar occurs, we are still irritated and helpless. 

What is uncertainty really?

It is not always the human factor that triggers unpredictable events. Additionally, technical systems also develop a life of their own because of their increasing complexity. And because technical systems influence our lives more and more, and continue to globalize the focus of our lives, we increasingly notice uncertainty. It comes into projects because projects are, by definition, a process that takes place once, and therefore the value of experiences from the past upon which secure planning is normally based is lacking. When uncertainty comes into play, then the management is especially required in line and project to make decisions – normally on a deadline with hardly any opportunities for preparation – and then implement them, check their success and also to get employees and other concerned parties on board. Often, within the framework of solving such situations, other situations arise that were also not predicted and these also have to be dealt with. Such unexpected situations that arise from dealing with the original uncertainty are designated “Second order uncertainties”.

How can you deal with uncertainty?

Project management and management methodologies put tools in our hands to plan, to control, to tune. But these tools normally take everything into focus that is predictable. Even the discipline of risk management deals with events that are known of, that could occur.

All of these are, of course, indispensable methods to successfully design a project, a change or an initiative. But what can be done with something that is not planable, something that is uncertain? If we ask project managers about such situations we always encounter statements like “I just guessed it,” “I handled it spontaneously by…”. At a first glance, this seems like “separating the wheat from the chaff,” “that is just what you do,” or “you just can’t do that,” a talent that one has or does not have.

Our core hypothesis is something else: we think that people can learn, re-learn and train skills to manage such uncertain situations – that is the good news.

The “bad” news is: there are no tools for uncertainties that we (according to the analysis of the situation) can simply implement, there are just the necessary skills that need to be learned and expanded, as with all skills, as a process of lifelong learning.

That leads us to the question of which skills they are and how are they learned? When evaluating situations in uncertainty, we see the following core aspects from the social scientists of the ISF Munich as useful:

  • Recognize the situation
    This means, amongst other things, a sense that something isn’t right and a perception of what is happening instead; this perception happens more on a level of sense than on a cognitive level.
  • Situational action
    This means primarily interlocking action and thought, often even acting intuitively, before “thinking” because the necessary thought is more associative and less analytical.
  • Entering a connection with the situation and the actors
    What counts here, above all, is a feeling for the project, and “what will be needed there,” a sort of empathy for or identification with a project.
  • An experimental, interacting process
    This means trying things out, learning from mistakes, operating cautiously, and always being able to sense how to act.
Once upon a time there was a project plan, but then something unpredictable happened

Once upon a time there was a project plan, but then something unpredictable happened

If you, like us, are a fan of Star Trek, then you surely know Scotty. When the warp drive failed, he knew two minutes before it happened. When the failure happened, he cautiously approached the problem, almost felt it in the drive. There are no lengthy analysis situations, the time is too limited for that. Pressure is endured and ideas arise in the team and from the combination of all the experiences of the participants. That describes dealing with uncertainty well, and so the approach of the scientists from Munich is also called “subjective action” or “experience-based work action”.

Ask the connecting question of how one can act in an experience-based situation, the situation is new, and so you don’t really have any fitting experiences.

So you need a sound knowledge of the project and this is where the classical methods of project management come into play, to help us elaborate this knowledge: the project plan, the stakeholder analysis, the knowledge of the goals, visions and strategies, the knowledge of potentially disruptive factors. Such knowledge is the basis for the necessary, above-mentioned connection between the project and its actors, an indispensable prerequisite, to make the project one’s own. A “feeling for the project” will arise and building upon that, the participants can stay on top of things in situations of uncertainty: solution and action ideas arise spontaneously and intuitively (as images) and based on the previous experience of all participants.

The action ideas are tried and – if they are unsuccessful – replaced with other ones. Experiences with unsuccessful solution ideas complement the previously experienced knowledge that expands itself through this: learning through solution processes. All that happened spontaneously and almost as a game, a type of flow used in emergencies, especially in highly critical situations.

This form of action can underlie skills that can be learned and trained:

  • Constructively dealing with mistakes: learning from them
  • Attention: A perception of yourself and of that which surrounds us: first of all, as a pure collection of evaluation-free observations
  • Letting go of your own expectations of potential solutions, existing plans, other involved parties
  • Letting go of the idea of perfect control that is not possible in situations because of the (double) uncertainty
  • Flexible handling of pressure situations
  • A good knowledge of yourself and your reactions
  • And, above all: security that doesn’t arise from control of the situation but from control of yourself. We describe this as “inner stability”.

In this position only the approach developed by us comes into play. It combines physical work with systematic though and action. Through bodywork and systematic ideas one can acquire both of the described skills and foster and reflect on situations and the experiences in professional context. Physically anchored, these abilities are also accessible as metaskills in unknown situations and create a foundation for experience-based action in situations of uncertainty.

Skills for dealing with uncertainty

(Meta)skills for dealing with uncertainty can be learned and trained. The essential factor there is to get a feeling for security beyond control. This competency has to be fostered. Inspiration for learning is possible with workshops and/or accompanied coaching. However, what is indispensable is that a process of lifelong learning and practice will be triggered, a process with which you can grapple with yourself and your own development and thereby achieve stability in flexibility. Successively letting go of your own expectations and thought processes is an essential component of this process.

Physical work and systematic work, combined with each other, offer a very well recommended approach here. As the management team you now probably have a few practical questions and answers, from which we would like to continue here:

  • Do I have to change all my work behavior?
    The answer to this question is a clear no. All the previous, analytical/cognitive orientated acting and decision-making has its value and they are core skills for you. But there are situations in which the project plan no longer applies or the energy for keeping to it has disappeared. These situations have to be recognized and then the working behavior adapted to them.
  • How do I recognize that I am in such a situation?
    Signals for such situations are heavily situated in bodies, in our experiences. Intuition comes from uncertainty. Tension, unease, restlessness and dreams can be such signals. The perception of signals that are underneath known waves can be trained.
  • This “trying” action sounds like improvisation and therefore chaos and behavior that does not clearly lead to the goal…
    Now, first of all, improvisation is everything but chaotic, it requires an outstanding expertise and a broad knowledge to be able to act situationally and harmonically. And actually it is in such situations that the goal is taken back into focus and tested.
  • What does letting go of control actually mean?
    Here we are considering situations of uncertainty that we couldn’t even have got under control. Control generates security in us and manifests itself in our bodies as tension that strengthens us.
    In situations of uncertainty, this security turns into mock security, tension becomes cramps, energy is wasted by keeping the (over)tension. Control is important and gives us support. But it is necessary to perceive cautiously, if control leads to tension and wasting energy and then consciously letting go of that.
  • What changes in handling my team?
    You can recognize unconscious management conduct and behavior under guidance. Your team has experienced that even those under guidance are responsible for success. Together, you can elaborate new options for handling pressure situations. That way an additional form of security will arise through the inner stability of the individuals and of the team, that will “carry you through uncertain times”. And last but not least, through the reflection of physical exercise, each individual can learn a lot about their limits and spaces.
  • How long do I need to learn all that?
    As by many skills it is foundationally about the bodywork and the associated personal development for lifelong learning and practice. What applies to expert knowledge also applies here: inspiration from outside is required, as well as consistent practice and elaboration without outside influence.
  • Where does this approach come from?
    This approach connects old knowledge from east Asian culture with modern systematic knowledge and economical experience from projects and management situations. Scientifically it is also underpinned by neuroscience.


After Astrid Kuhlmey has been working in middle management and in international project management in the pharma industry for more than thirty years, she became a freelancer in 2013 as a consultant for project and change management as a coach and mediator. For over ten years, she has been continuing her training in the areas of systematic consultation, mediation and project management as well as about themes of cooperation and organization. With her colleague Matthias Winnig, whose professional focus is on bodywork as well as the application of the universal principles of coaching, she has worked out an approach to connect bodywork with systematic techniques and attitudes with the goal of achieving security from inner stability.

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