Design Thinking Part 1: The Cone of Uncertainty (Aquent Federal Webcast Series)

By September 29, 2017Blog Aquent Studios, Design Thinking

“If you’re in the field of government design, you’re in the right field. It’s the future of government & you’ll be a pioneer.”  

~ Greg Godbout, cofounder of cBrain. Former Presidential Innovation Fellow.

Aquent recently had the honor of partnering with Greg Godbout when he became a guest speaker in the Aquent Federal Webcast Series.  Greg shared great insight into the world of government design-thinking, including how to make your mark as a design leader. We’re highlighting parts of the webcast here, in a five-part blog series.

We begin with key points from the Design Thinking for Government Designers & Leaders around the Cone of Uncertainty and how it impacts government business.  View the full webcast. More about cBrain and Greg Godbout. 

The Cone of Uncertainty

It is statistically improbable – almost impossible – for large project estimates

to be predicted with certainty up front.

Before Agile, projects of $10 million or more, were frequently managed using a Waterfall-type approach. Teams developed project estimates based on available, but limited, information.  And at the end of the project, they measured output and results, then held a post mortem discussion for future reference.

As teams continue to work on similar-sized projects, they learn over time, to generate more precise estimates based on past results.

Cone of uncertainty refers to a series of studies 

that deliver similar results almost every time.

How the Cone of Uncertainty impacts government

Government typically enters a contract on Day 1. Yet we know Day 1 is where uncertainty is at its highest. The potential risk at this point is enormous because there are too many unknown variables.

Many teams blow their budget in the early days of a project by spending too much money up front, when too little is known.


Instead of entering into a full contract on Day 1, teams should approach contracts in phases. This allows them to allocate smaller portions of the budget to each phase, while they test project uncertainty.

Typically, when you get 25-30% into the project, you can develop

a more realistic estimate. By this time, you’ll have some output to measure,

along with a better understanding of project needs and flow.

In other words, the level of uncertainty has been reduced. Notice we say reduced – not eliminated.

That leads us to Lean Methodologies, which we’ll discuss in the next post