IPMA International Project Management Association
15 June 2016 / 7:51

Resilience – a new perspective for individuals, projects and organisations

A word gains increasingly attention in social sciences: resilience. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. It was first used in the material sciences, where resilience is defined as ability of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically, and release that energy upon unloading.  In the 1970s the concept made its way into Psychology where it can be defined as an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. In the last couple of years the concept of resilience appeared also in the literature of project management. For example, in Germany the book “Resilienz im Projektmanagement” by Stephanie Borgert and in the United Kingdom the book “Project Resilience” by Elmar Kutsch, Mark Hall and Neil Turner. Furthermore, resilience can also be found in the literature of organisational sciences. It may be traced back to Stafford Beer and his famous “Viable System Model”, which was one of the first models I studied for improving project-oriented organisations in the late 1990s. During the same period of time, Karl Weick, Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, and David Obstfeld conducted their famous research on High Reliability Organisations (HROs). In their bestselling book “Managing the Unexpected – Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity” they identified the following characteristics of HROs: 1. Preoccupation with failure; 2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations; 3. Sensitivity to operations; 4. Commitment to resilience; 5. Deference to expertise.

We all experience an increasingly complex environment, which has a significant impact on our projects and the way we manage them. Factors to be considered are risks (calculable events), uncertainties (incalculable events), unforeseen influences, complexity and dynamic changes. This is a challenge to traditional approaches of project management and the paradigm of planning and control. Project managers and their teams need to have competences that enable them to quickly recover from difficulties and come back on track towards the desired goals. Elmar Kutsch and colleagues define resilience in the context of projects as “a project-wide human capability to anticipate key events from emerging trends, constantly adapt to change, and rapidly bounce back from adversity. Resilient projects are forward thinking and able to foresee relevant scenarios that are likely to occur and which may have damaging effects on performance. Resilient projects strive to be prepared for the best but also for the worst, and learning is nurtured and encouraged.” They describe five key enablers for projects to become resilient, the art of noticing, interpreting, preparing, containing and recovering. It would take too much space here to explain all five competences in details, but it is a significant shift in managing projects, from a rule-based to a mindfulness-based approach, building on the ingenuity of the people involved and consciously dealing with the complex and dynamic context we are in. Concepts of resilience for individuals, projects and organisations will help to advance the profession and cope with the ever-increasing challenges on our relentless pursuit towards a world in which all projects succeed.     


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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.