Work with Uncertainty and Emerging Situations

Who is it for: Programme leaders, people supporting programme design process, people guiding project processes 

When to refer to these resources: Preparing to embark on a more flexible project in a more uncertain space than usual; while working with complex and uncertain topics and situations 




When might you encounter uncertain and emerging situations?

If you're researching a complex challenge or topic, you are likely to encounter uncertainty and emerging situations. There will be unknown factors, changes in the situation, and unpredictable actions by others connected to the challenge. Change may occur frequently and require adaptation from you and your project. You may find it difficult to determine the best course of action, as ambiguity abounds.

If your work involves stakeholders and partners, or even multiple science disciplines, there is also likely to be uncertainty. You and others in the project will each bring unspoken assumptions and values and will be influenced differently by changes in the context, like market shifts and regulation.


What approaches and tools can help with these situations?

When you are faced with uncertainty and emerging situations, it can help to know what others working in this space have experienced:

  • It is time-consuming. Particularly at the start of the process, it takes a lot of time to discuss, plan, clarify stakeholder expectations and concerns, and get your team on the same page. This may feel like wasted time but is crucial to the success of your project. You will see the results later. 
  • It is uncomfortable. You may feel out of your depth or incompetent. You may struggle with not knowing where you are heading and needing to change direction. Your team may also share in this sense of discomfort. However, bear in mind that feeling uncomfortable is not a sign you’re wrong. It is a normal feeling for those trying something new and working things out as they go, and this is what you will need to do as you work in complex spaces. 
  • It is relational. Having good connections with your team and with your stakeholders is crucial. However, you may go through some uncomfortable times as tensions and conflicts come to the surface. Resolving these may not be easy, but it is a necessary part of the process. Conversations, particularly in person, will be important for this. 
  • It will involve changeProjects in this space cannot make an initial plan and rigidly carry this out, while meeting their original objective. Working with stakeholders and a changing context means that even the best plans will need to be adapted and reformed from time to time, as new information comes up and stakeholders change.  

Have a look at the Dairy Sheep case study for an example of what others have encountered and how they responded. 


There are also some things you can do practically in response to a complex and changing situation:

  • Refer to our project phases for suggestions of what can be done at each step.
  • Adopt a flexible working approach, e.g. ‘learning-by-doing’ (also known as action research). 'Learning-by-doing' can help people make progress when researching complex topics, as it may not be obvious exactly what the outcome needs to be or how this can be achieved. Taking an action and evaluating the outcome can help clarify what next needs to be done. See the Plan - Do - Observe - Reflect page for more information on what action research involves. 
  • Involve a process coach to support you as you navigate the process.
  • Use reflection processes to review what’s happened so far and prepare for what is next.