Lessons learned - dealing with ambiguity

Project Management learnings while dealing with ambiguity.

photo of Tamara Altimime
Tamara Altimime

Senior Program Manager

Posted on Feb 24, 2021

Despite trying our best to 'keep it all under control', sometimes things can go off track for whatever reason. When dealing with ambiguity as a result of trying to satisfy the requirements of multiple stakeholders with conflicting requests, it can become challenging to meet the demands.

I realised this quickly when I started working on a new Program when it first kicked-off back in August 2019. The magnitude of the scope in aiming to define a holistic concept for communicating Zalando's and our partners' convenience proposition along the customer journey felt really daunting at first. Essentially we are seeking to solve friction between unlimited assortment and unmatched convenience by providing more transparency on the different options in delivery speed, cost and number of shipments that customers should expect. Not to mention, balancing this with our business needs, increasingly complex fulfillment network, rising logistics cost and our strategic objective to elevate our loyalty program.

In addition to the overarching MRP (Minimal Reliable Product) scope, this program governed three other in-flight, interdependent topics. Each had an immediate need to make changes, which naturally increased the technical complexity of the program and its breadth even more.

After several months of discussions via multiple Sponsor meetings, and reviews with senior executive leaders regarding the initially developed Milestone 1 MRP scope, it became clear that the ever increasing complexity and lack of clarity on priority focus was drastically stunting progress. In addition, whilst conducting deep dives with critical teams on feasibility, several of them flagged a lack of capacity to deliver. After it was decided at executive level to break down the scope into smaller and independently 'launch-able' work packages, the program was able to progress faster with the delivery. The program set up has evolved over time and after discussions with our program sponsors, were able to secure dedicated product, design and engineering resource, ensuring continual delivery on the program.

To date, the program has successfully launched two main projects through the course of 2020 and will endeavor to start the execution of the third in Q2 2021.


I feel I have learned a lot from being part of such a vast program and overseeing all its moving parts. I would like to share some tips with you that I have picked up along the way:

  1. Stakeholder management is key. Make sure ALL your stakeholders are aligned from the word 'go' i.e. during a kick-off or subsequent initial rounds before the actual ground work takes off. It should be clearly articulated what each party expects from the project / program delivery and not left open for interpretation as this can greatly encourage and foster the dreaded scope creep. Don't leave the initial kick-off round without having this clearly defined and documented as it will only lead to subsequent follow up meetings further down the line.

  2. Effective sponsorship. You will need strong sponsors to provide input and make key decisions on the overarching project scope and delivery. Having an escalation point to unblock problem areas and drive progress is hugely impactful. Conducting regular review meetings to maintain transparency and establishing a frequent communication channel drastically helps with expectation management and avoids any 'nasty' surprises later on.

  3. Ways of working should be clearly defined, especially in a larger scale program that is being jointly managed by a cross business unit program team. Don't underestimate the importance of outlining from early on how you will collaborate and key areas of responsibility. This will also alleviate the risk of 'stepping on anyone's toes'.

  4. Communication is key. Never underestimate the importance of transparent and meaningful communication. Having the correct data and information available will really aid the decision making process. Investing time and energy into delivering clear and concise messaging will rapidly build trust amongst team members, stakeholders and lead to increased productivity and general team spirit where everyone feels involved and engaged. Creating transparency around processes will help ensure everyone is on the same page and knows what individual contributions are expected.

  5. SteerCo's are much more productive with a small group of relevant and key decision makers. Key tip: don't have so many people in the room that you lack enough chairs to accommodate them all. This may no longer be the case in the context of remote working, but I learned this the hard way early on. Having too many people in the meeting only increases the likelihood of coming out of the round without clear and actionable outputs.

  6. The Core project team can be a mix of very different individuals, each with unique personalities and with people coming and going, it can sometimes be difficult to strike the right working relationship. However each individual brings a fundamental set of skills and capabilities that are imperative to the project delivery. Regular core team meetings, synchs and retros with relevant individuals (needs must) are ways to keep the team on track and aligned on not only the immediate but also long term focus. Frequency is subject to choice but will also be influenced and vary depending on the point in time of the project implementation.

  7. Technical alignments are everything! These meetings have helped (and hindered) but mainly helped in surfacing some major blockers, required follow ups / alignments between teams as well as capacity and resourcing issues. Again, frequency is dependent on where you are in the delivery but I would strongly recommend these to be weekly. As an interim way to keep track of progress, establishing a dedicated google chat for engineering contacts is also advised and will help solve real time issues or bug fixes. Too many things can potentially slip if these meetings occur only on a bi-weekly basis.

  8. Accountability especially if someone tells you they can't do something. Always follow up with a 'why?' and don't just take it at face value that something is blocked or not possible. Usually there will be an underlying or even surface level mitigation that can be taken. Remember the 3 P's: patience, persistence but most importantly in this case is perseverance. A little bit of investigation and follow up goes a long way.

  9. Documentation is not the most exciting aspect of the role but I have to admit that there is a real sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you have everything up to date and in some kind of order. It really helps your mind state to create one 'safe space' where everything from decision logs and project plans to PR's and meeting notes are easy to refer back to when you need to. Clear documentation provides clarity for all stakeholders and prevents any ambiguity in understanding the current status quo.

  10. HELP! don't be afraid to ask for input and guidance. For those of us that are a bit more strong willed and determined, it can sometimes be a struggle to ask for help as a sign of 'weakness'. However I have learned to look at it more as a means of getting a more well rounded input from different angles that essentially will only drive better outputs. Use your immediate network, I can't stress this enough!

The initial overarching goal 'to make changes to the way we communicate convenience options to our customers' continues to be realised through the projects delivered as part of the overarching program. We continue to improve our product offering especially with regards how we communicate delivery options in various countries.

I hope some of the tips shared above help you in some way and just remember that we are all human and it's ok to learn from the 'mistakes' we make along the way!

Related posts