You Can’t Plan Away Uncertainty

I’ve recently moved from Venice, Florida back to the West—to Lafayette, Colorado near Boulder to be specific. As I launch my cycling activity here I was reminded of an article I wrote several years ago on Hudson Bay Starts. Riding in the Boulder/Lafayette area has infinite possibilities—hundreds of miles of off-road bike trails and a maze of roads with ample to no bike lanes. Lots of ways to get lost or on to a high-traffic, no shoulder road! My exploration approach is to do short rides out and back, expanding my range with subsequent rides—gradual exploration if you will. I’ve spent hours poring over maps and ride descriptions, but getting out on the ground is the only way to understand the difference between the map and the territory.

My exploratory rides are similar to Hudson Bay Starts (HBS, but not Harvard Business School) as a way of managing uncertainty. HBS are mentioned in Robert Fulghum’s book “Uh-oh: Some observations from both sides of the refrigerator door,” (Ballantine Books, 1991). They reflect on the nature of the famous Hudson Bay Company that plied the north woods of Canada for nearly a century beginning in the late 1600s. The company had a “willingness to take adventuresome risks and its careful preparation for those risks,” writes Fulghum.

A Hudson Bay Company expedition would set out for months in the wilds of Canada—traveling mostly by canoe. To ensure nothing catastrophic had been forgotten, they would camp the first night or two within a short distance of their departure point. By setting up camp, cooking, and performing other camp activities, the group had a good chance to figure out if anything major had been forgotten. They could then hurry back and retrieve any forgotten items the next day. Also, because the preparation prior to departure was usually hectic, so they would gather that first evening out to discuss and review the purposes for the trip and details of how they planned to carry it out. They were exploring into uncertainty—and their plans. No matter how well they planned, the brief starts usually uncovered things that might have jeopardized the expedition.

Fulghum’s book title—“Uh-oh”—also describes a philosophy, “It says to expect the unexpected, and also to expect to be able to deal with it as it happens, most of the time.” Sounds a little like Adaptive Leadership.

This HBS approach speaks to a key concept in agile/adaptive leadership—“You can’t plan away uncertainty, you execute away uncertainty.” In any situation there are things that are known, knowable, and unknowable—and it’s important to distinguish among the three—at least in concept, because knowing what’s knowable and what’s unknowable isn’t always easy to know. That’s why Hudson Bay Starts, iteration 0, and proof of concept iterations are so important—they help expose the unknowns and reduce their risk.

For projects, iteration 0 and a couple of development iterations serve the same purpose as a HBS—it forces the team to exercise all the activities, all the customer interactions, all the tools. On a project done in a more traditional mode, a single activity—requirements gathering for example—might take months. By the time the team exercises other aspects of the project—actually building the product for example—a significant amount of money may have been spent with very little uncertainty reduction. Reducing uncertainty and risk early and at a low cost should be the goal of any business endeavor. Lean Startups work in the same way.

A HBS has another appeal for me—it is simple, but powerful. I’m drawn to practices that are simple, or appear simple on the surface. A HBS should be relatively simple—pick a couple of uncertainty areas on your project, select a short timeframe, and execute a small piece of the project. That part is simple. What it uncovers about your project, your project team, your process, your project objectives, or your organization may not be.