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Santa Lucia! Dealing with uncertainty in projects

Santa Lucia Project Uncertainty

Santa Lucia and the dam – failing with a plan

In 2009, the South American jungle town of Santa Lucia received money for infrastructure from the federal government. The city decided to build a road to a remote mountain village that could only be reached by a dangerous path. Because the city administrators of Santa Lucia didn’t want anything to go up in smoke, or have to confront obstacles later on from working sloppily, they contracted a renowned road construction firm from the capital city to take on the task. The first third of the budget was allocated to create a detailed plan of the road, so the construction firm spent the next three months inspecting the terrain. Problems were recorded, embankment angles measured, swamps inspected, bridge lengths calculated and trees counted. This resulted in a meticulous project plan for the twelve kilometer road: nine building phases, twenty-seven milestones, and 138 project activities as well as a ninety-eight page fine concept that were to occur over the next few months. The plan was convincing and the city administrators in Santa Lucia were excited that everything was under control and ready to get started. The next three months flew by and soon building phase four was approaching, about $ 100 000 behind budget and five weeks behind schedule. After the first of the three concrete bridges was finished, the city received terrible news: there would soon be a large dam in the area! Santa Lucia quickly sent some officials and the site manager to the city. It was true; the dam was going to cross through the planned road: only the first four kilometers were “on land,” the rest would be in the water. Briefly summarized, the inglorious end of the project looks like this: Santa Lucia is still in three different legal battles with the central government and the road construction firm is in one with Santa Lucia. And the finished section of the road? The rainforest is reclaiming it…

Well planned and still a failure – what happened?

Santa Lucia thought of all contingencies to reduce uncertainty in the project, but it failed spectacularly anyway. Many projects are similar to the road in Santa Lucia – and because this pattern is often followed, it is worth looking at more closely:

You can’t see into the future, not even with a lot of money: It’s tempting to put a lot of energy and effort into making the most detailed concept and project plans possible: This makes the project sponsor and project team feel more certain and conveys the unfortunately deceptive feeling that the project is under control. Unfortunately, all plans and concepts have problems: they are an attempt to see the future. That can sometimes work well (for things that are only a few days or weeks in the future), but normally it doesn’t. Then a situation arises like this one in Santa Lucia – where a lot of time and money has been invested into a plan which is now, unfortunately, obsolete.

The world keeps turning: Even a carefully put together project plan and a cleverly thought out concept including all known contingencies cannot take into consideration what might happen tomorrow. Precise concepts are often an attempt to both see the future and to “freeze” the analyzed status. This doesn’t work, not even for the most experienced clairvoyants.

Groupthink: Project plans and concepts normally arise from tight-knit groups – core project teams. If you have been in one of these teams, then you know that a certain prestige comes with this membership. And that means that skeptical thoughts on concepts developed together are not welcomed – not even where warranted. The consequence of this is a self-validating group that loses touch with reality.

In love with your own plan: Subtly thought-out, detailed plans have another disadvantage: it’s easy to fall in love with them! They are your own handiwork and you are rightfully proud of them. So proud that you don’t want to give them up, even if it becomes clear that they no longer represent reality.

The embarrassing feeling of screwing up: Even if you are able to farewell to your plan, you’re normally in “debt” to the project sponsor – be completely honest: What project manager can let this roll of their tongue easily: “I’m sorry, we have been working on a detailed concept with thirteen experts over the past three months, but it’s nonsense. We have to throw it out and start all over again!” – and here it normally goes on to…

Looking for someone to blame: No one likes to admit that their own plan wasn’t the wisest move and ended up blocked up in the wall of a dam. The human reaction is to point the blame away from yourself – which is easiest to do if it was someone else’s fault. That’s why legal paths are being taken in Santa Lucia to find who is to blame – and because of this, no one has any time to find an alternative for the project.

Casual in San Jose – Living with uncertainty

At the same time that unlucky Santa Lucia got their infrastructure money, San Jose got some too. They also decided to use it to build a road connection to a rural village that could only be reached by a muddy and dangerous path. San Jose approached the project differently and went completely without a project or construction plan. Instead, they contracted a local carter along with five construction workers to make their way to the village by foot and take note of all the locations where a loaded mule could not cross, and to find out the minimum that would need to be done to change that. Two weeks later, construction could start on these seven locations and one month later, for the first time, loaded mules were able to bring interesting wares to the market in San Jose. At the same time, the carter already had another contract: What needed to be changed on this mule track so that a mule pulling a narrow carriage could go along the path? Again, a range of positions were identified that needed to be changed. These were tackled and after a few months, wares could be loaded onto carriages and brought to San Jose. At the same time, the carter was on the way with some construction workers to find out what would have to be changed on the path so that a small SUV could travel to the village…

Successful projects in the face of uncertainty – how did they manage?

San Jose approached the road construction completely differently from Santa Lucia. Instead of making a large draft of an all-inclusive project plan all at once, San Jose just got started and did it step-by-step, where each step was a productive step toward the entire goal. San Jose ignored the typical questions asked at the beginning of a project, like:

  • When will the dual carriageway be finished?
  • Where will it be?
  • How far along will it be in a year?
  • How far can the project get with the allocated budget?
  • etc.

The reason is simple: on the one hand, the answers to these questions don’t solve any problems, and on the other hand they were a lot of effort for Santa Lucia, and incorrect anyway. San Jose accepted these uncertainties and focused on what was important: the road. And even if San Jose had been surprised by a dam a few months into the project: all they would have lost was a carriage path that had already paid for itself.


The common approach of recognizing uncertainty and risks in a project early on has a lot of weaknesses that can really just make things worse.

Did you enjoy reading this post and to you want to get in touch? Find Joachim Reinke at: Joachim Reinke@LinkedIn


Joachim Reinke has been a project manager for over ten years, both freelance and on staff. He also works as a trainer and coach for product definition and requirements management. Because he was also a programmer for many years earlier on, he also knows what it feels like to work on the receiving side of product specifications.

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