Project Resilience – What PMOs Could Learn

PMO Flashmob Book ReviewBook Review:

Project Resilience – The Art of Noticing, Interpreting, Preparing, Containing and Recovering

by Elmar Kutsch, Mark Hall, Neil Turner, Gower Publishing Ltd (Farnham, Surrey) as part of the “Advances in Project Management” series

ISBN 978-1-4724-2363-4

222 pages, RRP £45 (review copy supplied free of charge by the publishers)

Rating:        ****

Traditional project management techniques use experience from previous projects to inform current running projects. This helps projects deal with risks (that we know may happen) but does not help with uncertainty (not knowing what may happen) or complexity (interrelationships between risk and uncertainty).

Rather than the traditional view of a project as a machine comprising interlocking parts, this book uses the metaphor of a project as a living organism influenced by its environment.

It proposes that adversity can be handled by Noticing, Interpreting, Preparing, Containing and Recovering.

This book is not an easy read, because it raises contradictions that require serious consideration. It doesn’t offer a formula for resilience, but it does offer many thought-provoking insights. This is the sort of book you need to re-visit periodically, to help you guard against myopic thinking. If you’re interested in making your projects more resilient to adversity, you should buy this book.

Here are some of my key take-aways (and it took considerable editing to get it down to this many).

What resilience looks like

  • Decentralised authority structures (in which everyone is aware of the “big picture” and understands the reasons behind what they are doing), are more adaptable and resilient to adversity than centralised, rule-based “command and control” structures. These fail if you cut off the head, or if a situation arises that the pre-determined rules don’t cater for.
  • Placing emphasis on achieving goals (rather than how they are achieved) increases the chances of success over adversity (provided the team has the authority, skills and resources to overcome obstacles).

Noticing

  • Risks can be forecast and accounted for, but uncertainties cannot be forecast, only noticed – and this must be while they are still small. Uncertainties go unnoticed because it is more comfortable to believe they have all been designed out of the project.
  • PMs must be able to report adversity quickly and honestly, without fear of blame or recrimination (see my observations on “Watermelon” or “Green side up” reporting).
  • Being free enough to notice things means that resources are not always creating value.

Interpreting

  • Lessons stay unlearned due to ineffective records and staff moving on (see here and here). A good way to transfer experience is through storytelling, as this makes lessons more real and memorable.
  • Over-optimistic estimates taken as commitments provide a scant margin for error, leaving the project vulnerable to even small problems.
  • Conversely, “padding” estimates produces mistrust in their reliability. Instead, revise estimates often informed by new information.
  • Quoting a range, confidence interval or probability distribution around estimates and using language like “may” and “might” instead of “shall” and “will” signposts uncertainty.
  • Stakeholders shouldn’t be sold the illusion of project certainty, but instead should be reminded of project risks (which they want to believe have been managed out), and the team’s capability to deal with uncertainty.

Preparing

  • Cross-training team members improves their ability to cope with adversity, but produces no return if no problems arise.
  • Events should only be predicted with any sort of confidence as far as the Planning Horizon. This is quite near in the future if there is high uncertainty; there is little value in trying to look too far ahead in rapidly changing circumstances.
  • Stakeholders must understand that short planning horizons, approximate forecasts, etc., are conscious responses to perceived project uncertainty, not poor planning / forecasting.
  • Projects should not only plan for the single most likely future, but also prepare for the multiple possible futures beyond the risk horizon. This requires options, empowered people, and stakeholders bought into flexibility.

Containing

  • Avoid applying automatic, “tried and tested” responses to new challenges, which probably require an innovative, novel response.
  • Escalating decisions slows down problem responses, disempowers teams, and leads to the concealment of problems.
  • Sometimes in order to respond quickly with creative and innovative solutions, you have to forego planning and consideration, and simply improvise (around the plan, within constraints, based on knowledge and experience) to solve a problem. This is less about what should be done, and more about what can be done, but requires that team members are kept updated on the “big picture”; what is going on elsewhere.

Recovering

  • Focus first on stopping things from going any wrong further. Then, you can start to make the wrong things right.
  • One (expensive) approach is to have a “Tiger Team” of experts available to sort out crises. These should be more objective than the PM, who is usually emotionally involved. If the organisation does not have resources for a Tiger Team, it may be best to pause the project while the crisis is addressed.
  • Beware of short-term thinking aimed just at solving the immediate problem. Think about the impact on the remainder of the project, and repairing damaged stakeholder confidence.

Roads to Resilience

  • Resilience is not about applying more process or controls. It is not cost-effective or even possible to plan for every eventuality, or to design all uncertainty out of a project. However it is possible to develop resilience to fix problems before they become crises.
  • Resilience is mostly about people. Make people uncomfortable enough about uncertainty to avoid complacency, but provide them with knowledge, awareness and freedom so they feel comfortable enough to respond to adversity using approaches beyond those they have used before.
  • Cost-effective project resilience is likely to come from the using a rule-based approach (to handle risks and utilise lessons learned from the past), but with enough room to manoeuvre and apply the human mind’s adaptability.

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About Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell
Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who helps organisations to improve the way they change through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO: sometimes by supporting the controlled delivery of change programmes, and sometimes by ensuring CxOs get the information they need to make strategic decisions about those change programmes.

One comment

  1. Thanks Ken, I may get myself a copy of this one. Ties in nicely with Agile too – People over Process. Too many projects and PMOs add layers and layers of ‘control’ rather than tackling the underlying issues.

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