Using Hill Chart terminology to express uncertainty

Pretty much every project that runs late can attribute this to uncertainty when its was initiated. Requirements can be incomplete, stakeholder were not properly informed or the full implications of an earlier decision were ill-understood. Humans are notoriously bad at estimating work, but it doesn’t even make sense when the task itself is unclear.

It’s impossible to remove all uncertainties up front; nobody has the resources to do so, and even if, our environment has become so complex and is changing so rapidly that any new found knowledge would be outdated rather quickly. A lot has been done about dealing with uncertainty by improving cycle times (quick iterations) or moving to a model with fixed timeline/budgets and a flexible scope. Note that neither of these solutions actually tackle uncertainty, but rather reduce its impact (by gathering feedback more quickly or introducing hard limits).

Given that uncertainty is everywhere and you can not fully control your environment, you’ll have to manage uncertainty in order to have a clear path forward. Risk management ("the effect of uncertainty on objectives”) is something that every business student is familiar with, but very few others professionals seem to apply effectively on a daily basis. While the concepts are rather intuitive, the lack of pragmatic framework made it hard to share with an entire team.

When Ryan Singer shared his first hill charts in early 2018, things did not click immediately, but the phrase “getting over the hill” has become part of our vocabulary. In a hill charts, tasks are positioned on a hill’s cross section. When a task still has elements of uncertainty, it progresses up the slope. Once it clears the apex all uncertainties have been resolved and you just have to do the work. Why does this matter? Because if you don’t even know what a task entails, there is no way you can tell when it will be completed.

The hill analogy makes it easy to share and explain concepts like front loading uncertainties (“let’s get over the hill first”) with everyone that is involved in the project. More importantly, it helps pushing down risk management to self-managed teams and provides a simple language to discuss potential issues. We do not currently map all our tasks on a hill chart (or plan on doing so in the near future), but simply use it as tool for discussion.

Tackling uncertainty early should ultimately lead to completing projects more comfortably. Team members have an early understanding of what is expected. You can also start making actual educated decisions about taking on more or less risk. What’s is not to like?