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Sometimes the project manager places too high an expectation on the amount of foresight and vision that customers and sponsors have. In many cases, the project manager will go to the customer looking for answers to help define the project and the customer will not have all of the information needed. This happens all the time and it does not mean that the customer does not know what they are doing. In many cases, especially for large projects, the customer has a vision of what the end results will be, but cannot yet articulate this vision into concrete objectives, deliverables and scope.
There are three approaches for when you don't know very much information on the nature of the project.
Increase Estimating Range Based on Uncertainty
Based on having less than complete information, the project manager may feel the need to guess on the details. This is not a good solution. It is better to state up-front everything that you know, as well as everything that you do not know. If you are asked to come up with estimated effort, cost and duration, you will need to provide a high and low range based on the uncertainty remaining. On a normal project, for instance, you might estimate the work within +/- 10%. On a project with a lot of uncertainty, the estimating range might be +/- 50%.
Break the Work into Smaller Projects
Another good alternative is simply to break the work down into a series of smaller projects based on what you know at the time. Even if the final results cannot be clearly defined, there should be some amount of work that is well defined, which will, in turn lead to the information needed for the final solution. You can define a project to cover as far as you can comfortably see today. Then define and plan subsequent projects to cover the remaining work as more details are known. For instance, you could create a project that gathered business requirements, and then use the results of that project to define a second project to build the final deliverables.
Uncover the Details as the Project Progresses
If you are not allowed to break the project into smaller pieces, you should at least know enough that you can plan the work for the first 90 days. In this third approach, you plan the short-term work in more detail, and leave the longer term effort more undefined. Each month you should redefine and plan the remaining work. As you uncover more and more information, you can plan the remaining work at a more detailed level. As you uncover more details, you can refine your estimates and work with the sponsor to make sure it is still okay to continue.
This last approach uses an Agile philosophy. Agile projects are generally exploratory. The details of the project are uncovered as the project progresses. (There are many more differences in Agile projects, but this philosophy is one.) In a traditional project management model this would also be known as 'progressive elaboration' - which also means more details are uncovered as the project progresses.