In most if not all circumstances we tend to look at uncertainly as a forward thinking process. It usually, and quite naturally, applies to the likelihood of events taking place in the future. In the project management world, uncertainty is ascribed to the likelihood of positive or negative events occurring and thus, in the context of risk management, to the impact these will have on the project’s ability to meet its objectives.

The literature is full of excellent reference material dealing with our innate inability to properly understand, let along manage, probabilities and (to a larger extent) probability distributions.

If you are a project manager you will (excuse the pun –>) probably agree if I say that a significant amount of brain power goes into managing aspects associated with uncertainty. Two books I have read recently, Uncertain Science…Uncertain World by Henry N. Pollack and The Arrow of Time by Peter Coveney, made me more aware of the fact that whereas I am more inquisitive and conscientious about the prospects of events taking place in the future, I am not as diligent in confirming the prospects of events that took place in the past.

Confused? Let me explain.

It is not unusual for decisions about the course of action to be taken in the future to be based on events that took place in the past. In the project lingo it is referred to as Historical Records. This could include important reference information that could include project schedules, project budgets, issues and risks of comparable projects, and other formal information produced in the course of past projects. Having these historical records is a recommended source of past wisdom upon which present and future assessments can be made.

If you are a project manager who is lucky enough to have access to the Organizational Process Assets (including closed projects’ records and lessons learned) you might conclude that given a similar set of objectives, using the same resources and applying the same technology, all you’ve got to do is just copy and past the old plans into a revised and well formatted template and hey presto, you are good to go! Right?

Well, not quite! The reason for this is that you have to factor in the uncertainties that shaped the actual outcome of the project you are attempting to replicate. You should ask yourself the following questions:

Given that the past project was scheduled to go for X months but ended up taking Y months, what circumstances led to this discrepancy and how likely are these circumstances to have an impact on the current project?

The past project has had a number of risks that have materialised requiring active risk management. Is the likelihood of these risks occuring in the current project the same, or have underlying conditions changed to the point that the risk mitigation strategy for them should be completely different?

The above is fairly self-explanatory so I won’t take it any further. The bottom line is that learning from the past require further scrutiny of the past uncertainty and its re-calibration to the current reality. This makes the apparent simplicity in which we can utilize past data seem slightly more complicated – and indeed it is. The past can be used as a guide but this is where it ends as the lessons learned in the past should be re-examined with fresh, current and relevant view of future uncertainties and their application to the project at hand.

Think about it.

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