IPMA International Project Management Association
27 March 2019 / 9:00

Cognitive readiness for complex projects and programmes

Cognition is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” It may encompass intellectual functions and processes such as attention, the formation of knowledge, memory and working memory, judgment and evaluation, reasoning and “computation”, problem solving and decision making, comprehension and production of language. The ground-breaking new publication “Cognitive Readiness in Project Teams – Reducing Project Complexity and Increasing Success in Project Management” edited by Carl Belack,

Daniele and Ivano Di Filippo aims at transferring concepts of cognitive readiness into the domain of project management and presenting brain-based competencies for project managers and executives. The book´s focus is on cognitive readiness, a newly recognized and fundamental set of leadership competencies that has neuroscience as a foundation with mindfulness, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, and social intelligence as its pillars and is intended to help develop the next generation of project managers.

The editors view cognitive readiness as an essential framework for managing and minimizing the effects of complexity that stem from both human behaviour and ambiguity. In addition, cognitive readiness is described as an enabler for project teams to more easily absorb systems behaviour through a greater understanding of one another’s individual and combined capabilities for handling those behaviours. Cognitive readiness is seen as a primary set of leadership competencies both for self-management and for successfully developing and managing high-performing teams in a complex project environment.

The book itself was a rather complex project which took the editors several years and many occasions to discuss and refine. It´s seen as an “open” initiative with a diverse range of perspectives from editors, authors, contributing experts, and peer reviewers. The main goal of the book is to raise awareness among the international business community, general organizations, project managers, and executives, as to the benefits of cognitive readiness and its importance in a global business environment, the impact of which requires supplemental leadership competencies in order to maximize the probability of project success.

The starting point of this book is the assumption that business complexity has significantly increased in the last twenty years as the technological revolution has enabled rapid, worldwide communications, supply chain globalization, social networks, artificial intelligence, and robotics. During the 1950s, the starting point of “modern” project management, the idea was to cope with the increasing complexity by applying processes, methods and tools to projects. Project and program management was the “recipe” for dealing with complexity, a rather rational and mechanistic view, ignoring the human potential. In 1994, Antonio R. Damasio published “Descartes´ Error”, a book in which he argued that René Descartes’ “error” was the separation of mind and body, rationality and emotion. Damasio proposed a mechanism by which emotions guide (or bias) behaviour and decision-making, and positing that rationality requires emotional input. To me, as an engineer by profession, this opened a totally new world with a lot of questions, doubts and the quest of getting to understand human nature and its role for project success.

The editors and authors of this book believe that for too long project and program management standards have focused on the “hard skills” of project management, generally considered to be those that allow the project or program manager to manage the “iron triangle” of cost, schedule, and scope. In the last decades trends have started to shift towards “soft skills,” such as team motivation, communication, flexibility, and leadership. For example, IPMA´s Individual Competence Baseline (IPMA ICB®) in its version 3 and 4 highlights the “people” competences of a project manager, i.e. dealing with her-/himself and others in the context of a project or programme. In their book, the editors and authors argue that cognitive readiness is a necessary condition for all people involved in projects and programmes to increase the probability of successful outcomes. Cognitive readiness involves understanding and maximizing human behavioral outcomes. It is defined as the mental preparation, including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions, needed to establish and sustain outstanding individual and team performance in the complex and rapidly changing environment of project, program, and portfolio management.

The cognitive readiness framework in the book is based on neuroscientific studies. Advances in neuroscience have enabled professionals to gather hard evidence from repeatable experiments to support new theories around the biological bases of human decision-making, interpersonal relationships, and leadership. The framework is based on four pillars. Each pillar is informed by the neuroscientific foundation of the framework: mindfulness, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, and social intelligence. Through practicing mindfulness, the project or programme manager is able to maintain focus on three fundamental aspects: recognizing one’s inner feelings and emotions, recognizing others feeling and emotions, and becoming better attuned to one’s external environmental factors. Cognitive intelligence may generally be defined as mental capability, including but not limited to reasoning, understanding complex ideas, solving problems, abstract thinking, experiential learning, and related concepts. One of the well-known contributors of this book, Daniel Goleman, defines emotional intelligence as a set of human capacities – within us as individuals – to manage our own emotional and our inner potential for positive relationships, whereas social intelligence is beyond a one-person psychology and transpires as we connect.

In the book it is argued that each of the three aforementioned intelligences has a set of competences, which is helpful to explain outstanding performance. For example, emotional intelligence competences are crucial for managing ourselves. They refer to the ability to recognize one’s own feelings, preferences, and resources, and the ability to manage one’s own moods, impulses, and emotions in a way that facilitates rather than interferes with the task to be performed. It includes emotional self-awareness, which is defined as the ability to understand what one feels in a given moment and to use these preferences to guide the decision-making process and also comprehend the capacity to have a realistic assessment of one’s skills. Moreover, it encompasses emotional self-control, which is crucial in highly stressful working environments; positive outlook, which is the ability to see the positive side of things; drive to achieve, which concerns the ability to set personal challenging standards and continuously find a way to improve; and adaptability, which is useful in volatile and unstable environments because it helps to quickly metabolize change. In the IPMA ICB 4.0 those competences are addressed by the competence element “Self-reflection and self-management”.

It´s obvious that emotional and social competences are more complex and difficult to develop than “technical” skills. Acquiring or developing emotional and social competences requires a change in neural connections and, consequently, in behaviour. The book indicates that “neural connections are created over time and form a structure that routinizes our automatic response to stimuli. The more a repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and actions is used, the stronger the neural connections become, thus creating a dominant pathway for nerve impulses that represents the brain’s default answer and leads the person to deploy a certain behaviour automatically and spontaneously when facing a certain situation. As opposed to connections that are not used which become weak, leading to progressive disuse of the related behaviours. The change of well-established and rooted behaviours requires re-programming neural circuits, involving both the rational part of our brain (the neocortex) and the emotional one (the limbic system). While the neocortex is used to gain knowledge and acquire ideas, such as learning the concepts of revenues and costs, the limbic system requires practice, repetition, active involvement, and feedback to learn!

In my point of view, the book opens a new perspective for our discipline, taking (again) more account of the human potentials for doing projects and programmes. Changing the perspectives is essential for project success and thus, the book helps us to be more successful and resilient through cognitive readiness.


  • As a contributor, I think this article captures the essence of the book – the importance of cognitive readiness enabled by the blending of mindfulness and intelligence. Most controversial of the intelligences is spiritual intelligence. As I wrote about mindfulness and multiple intelligences in my chapter I found that a sense of the “bigger picture” and the exploration of self and other in that context was another pillar of cognitive readiness.

  • Stacy Goff says:

    Thank you, Reinhard! You give an excellent summary of an excellent book! I am still working my way through the e-version of the book, and I find it to be very, interesting, and even better than expected.

    And thank you to Ivano, Daniele, and Russ (Archibald) for your steady and patient journey, begun nearly ten years ago!

  • Ivano Di Filippo says:

    Thanks so much for your comment George, I’m with you about the importance even of SI but what it is wrong with it, at least in my opinion is… how it has been named. It is hard to connect an awakening (intended it as mind shift) with the spirituality. This take our mind to create connections with oriental meditation ormonks staying in a in a Buddhist monastery or even priests who seek their own spirituality by praying within the walls of a church. This is due to the activation of a cognitive pathway or better defined as a bias that leads the mental processes to enter and continue to travel within a cognitive tunnel.

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.