Uncertainty and Indeterminacy in the Project World


By Crispin ‘Kik’ Piney





The ideas in this article arise from the philosophical puzzle around the meaning of uncertainty and probability when applied to a single occurrence. That is to say that, whereas statistics and probability calculations are very meaningful in conditions involving a large number of events, what this all means is much less clear for a unique event. This conundrum therefore applies in the case of projects, each of which, as defined by PMI [ref 4], has the characteristic of “uniqueness”.

The scientific area in which uncertainty and unique events has been extensively studied is in quantum physics. Although, it may seem rather a long stretch from projects to particles, some insights into project risk management can be gained from this comparison, as will be explained below by describing the ideas from quantum physics that are relevant to this analysis, and noting their relevance to project risk management: the uncertainty principle, indeterminacy, probability waves and entanglement.

The terminology used in quantum physics is a potential barrier to understanding:

  • The term “uncertainty” is associated with the lack of precision available in measuring (and therefore predicting) certain quantities – whereas in projects, the term “uncertainty” is associated with lack of knowledge about the occurrence or not of an event or condition.
  • The term “indeterminacy” is associated with lack of knowledge about an outcome or set of outcomes. In projects, as mentioned just above, the term “uncertainty” is used for this as well.

This article analyses the practice of project risk management with respect to each three major features of quantum theory: uncertainty, indeterminacy and entanglement, and draws a few action-oriented lessons for practitioners.

In this article, I will try to reduce the risk of confusion by using the terms Q-Uncertainty when referring to the meaning used in quantum theory, to distinguish it from the everyday use of the term “uncertainty”.


The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics states that the more precisely you try to measure the momentum of a particle, the more inaccurate will be the measure of position. Similarly, in the project world, the more strictly you limit variation in one component of the triple constraint of time, cost and scope, the less accurate is your control over the others, so the greater is the uncertainty over the result with respect to that component. In the project environment, this arises from the fact that the three parameters of the triple constraint are not mutually independent. This will be explained next by expanding the following three truisms which show the pairwise relationships between the components of the triple constraint as shown below (Figure 1):

  1. Time is money (cost)
  2. Rome (scope) wasn’t built in a day (time)
  3. You don’t get owt (the product scope) for nowt (cost)

This section will finish with a brief conclusion about how projects should deal with this type of Q-Uncertainty.


To read entire paper, click here

Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally published in the June 2011 edition of PM World Today. It is republished here with the author’s permission.


About the Author

Crispin Piney

South of France



After many years managing international IT projects within large corporations, Crispin (“Kik”) Piney, B.Sc., PgMP is now a freelance project management consultant based in the South of France. At present, his main areas of focus are risk management, integrated Portfolio, Program and Project management, scope management and organizational maturity, as well as time and cost control. He has developed advanced training courses on these topics, which he delivers in English and in French to international audiences from various industries. In the consultancy area, he has developed and delivered a practical project management maturity analysis and action-planning consultancy package.

Kik has carried out work for PMI on the first Edition of the Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3™) as well as participating actively in fourth edition of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge and was also vice-chairman of the Translation Verification Committee for the Third Edition. He was a significant contributor to the second edition of both PMI’s Standard for Program Management as well as the Standard for Portfolio Management. In 2008, he was the first person in France to receive PMI’s PgMP® credential; he was also the first recipient in France of the PfMP® credential. He is co-author of PMI’s Practice Standard for Risk Management. He collaborates with David Hillson (the “Risk Doctor”) by translating his monthly risk briefings into French. He has presented at a number of recent PMI conferences and published formal papers.

Kik Piney can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Kik Piney, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/crispin-kik-piney/