Adaptive Resilience

“The fundamental paradox is that change is essential, and yet stability is necessary.”
C.S. Holling (2000)

If it does nothing else, proactive risk management allows projects and organisations to build resilience to events without becoming defensive or static.

Here’s a ‘thought bubble’ on how – through adaptive resilience – project managers can balance the tension between the needs to simultaneously take and avoid risk.

Through his analysis of the Arts sector, Mark Robinson made a number of observations about the characteristics of resilient organisations. I’ve presented them below ‘as is’, and it is surprising to note their fit to the general paradigm of project risk management.

Resilient organisations share…

  • …a culture of shared purpose and values rooted in a strong organisational memory, avoiding mission-drift but consciously evolving
  • …predictable financial resources derived from a robust business model and a range of activities and ‘customers’, allowing some financial flexibility to be retained
  • …strong networks (internal or external), with an absence of ‘silos’, and collaboration at all levels to make the organisation vital and connected, and
  • …intellectual, human and physical assets used to maximise impact in pursuit of core purpose, with appropriate investment in the creation and exploitation of new assets.

Adaptive organisations share…

  • …adaptive capacity: innovation and experimentation are embedded in reflective practice, with change seen as natural and actively prepared for
  • …leadership, management and governance provide clarity internally and externally, with clear roles and responsibilities and strong improvement focus
  • …situation awareness of environment and performance, with good gathering, sharing and consideration of intelligence and information to inform decisions, and
  • …management of key vulnerabilities that is regular and integrated into planning and preparation for disruption.

Adaptive resilience is thus the capacity to remain productive and true to core purpose and identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.

Robinson argues (with strong evidence) that organisations and sectors that consistently display these characteristics will tend to prove more resilient, be more productive and have more impact – and isn’t that exactly want from our projects?

His ultimate argument, as it is translated here, can be essentially reduced to a simple dichotomy: are you, through your projects, delivering products or outcomes? In other words, does your project actively use its resources to create new revenue to create fresh assets, or does it only do whatever is specified in the statement of scope?

Although we address this issue more completely in the IPM Open, my contention here is that projects are inevitably much bigger than their moving parts, and that risk management is the way we both conceptualise, accommodate and capitalise on this.

What do you think?

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PAUL MULLER

IPM DIRECTOR of STUDIES
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