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Project Turbulence – Is there too little or too much?

Why a certain amount of turbulence and uncertainty around your strategic projects may be a good thing.

Which of the images below best reflects the execution of your strategic project? Is it the tornado or the calm lake? Now, that sounds like a strange question to ask, but there is a little bit of project management psychology behind it.

If the weather forecast tells you to expect calm you are going to behave very differently than if there is a tornado warning. But imagine that the forecast got it wrong. You could easily find yourself at peril. Well, that metaphorically is what is happening to many leaders and teams running strategic projects! They are expecting calm, when turbulence and chaos are never too far off the shoreline.

When it comes to strategic projects a certain amount of turbulence can be a good thing. If there isn’t any then the project is probably not making enough waves. In other words it is business as usual, rather than business unusual.

The Source of Turbulence

There is a upside to turbulence – the chaos and disruption creates opportunities as well as threats(2). What matters most is the ability of a project team to adapt – its speed and agility.

Turbulence Can be a Good Thing

The turbulence and unpredictability around a strategic project is determined (in part at least) by the rate of change in the market place. Looked at through the positive lens – VUCA industries can present the greatest opportunities.  That is unless you are put out by the old patterns being interrupted, the rules being re-written, or the status quo being disturbed. Fast changing markets often entail; new rules, a new urgency and a new basis of competition.  They are characterized by blurring industry boundaries, morphing customer needs, the reinvention of business models and the emergence of new channels.  These are fuelled by leaps of technology, social shifts and global economic volatility.  All this can be scary at first, but then exhilarating.  That is if you are racing the right type of car (AKA revenue generating machine) – one that combines agility with speed.  Keeping that car on the track and maximizing its chances of winning will require effective pitstops(2). 

The traditional mode of business planning, performance management and strategy is fine for times where change is predictable and slow. Not surprisingly however it struggles to cope in the modern era where organizations must keep pace with an accelerating rate of change and uncertainty.  Spotting a change too late, or responding to it too slowly means that an organization risks being overtaken by faster and nimbler competitors.   The problem is that companies that have been traveling the same road (industry-wise) for a long time have laid down a track (in terms of attitudes, culture and business model) from which it can be difficult to deviate.  But falling behind is easy, so too is falling so far back that you won’t ever get to catch up, as happened to; Blockbuster, Polaroid and Nokia for example(3). 

‘With speed low enough and predictability high enough, certain methods work just fine in organizations. But these methods cannot possibly work when speed goes up significantly and predictability (predictably) goes down.’
John P. Kotter(4)


(1) Donald Sull, The Upside of Turbulence, Harper Business, 2009.

(2) and (3) Excerpts from Growth Pitstop

(4) John P. Kotter, ‘Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World,’ Harvard Business Review Press, 2014 .

If there isn’t any turbulence the project is probably not making enough waves.

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