VIE WPOIN TS
VOICES ON PROJECT MANAGEMENT
A resilient process can reign in the little issues that build up to big trouble.
BY DAVID DENYER, PhD, AND ELMAR KUTSCH, PhD
If taken individually, small problems within a program are often mistaken for “normal” circumstances. But when added up, they can lead to a major crisis. This happens particularly when program managers
become distracted with non-core essentials or are preoccupied
with past successes. Errors accumulate unnoticed over time
and seem to have the innate ability to find the weakest parts
of the process.
A natural response from many program managers is to
introduce policies, procedures or direct supervision as a means
of control. However attractive it may
seem, adding another rule or holding
somebody accountable often fails to
solve problems in the long term.
So how can those charged with
the heavy responsibility of achieving
“failure-free” programs design, implement and execute their activities to
secure exceptional performance?
Over the past five years, our
research has examined several failures
in program-driven organizations that
threaten the viability of the business.
Subjects included nuclear facilities,
fire and rescue teams, high-security mental health services,
humanitarian aid organizations, manufacturing plants, and
numerous British National Health Service trusts.
There were clear differences across programs, but organizations and sectors, in almost every case, revealed the same basic
approach: a priority on failure avoidance and an attempt to
proactively design and manage the program to this end. This
approach enables a program-wide emphasis on resilient performance, even in the presence of a threat or continuous stress.
In contrast, program-driven organizations that are less
resilient strive for peak performance, often driven by instant
profits or bonuses. Short-term success can breed complacency
and overconfidence, often masking impending crises and
making the investment in medium-term reliability increas-
ingly difficult to justify.
Leaders in error-critical programs have to read and make
sense of many complex situations occurring simultaneously,
including those that have not occurred before and might have
>>Join the discussion at PMI.org/Voices.
In response to Geoff Mattie’s post, “Who’s Really the Project Lead?” Erin Lynn Young commented, “I love user experience design and strategy—and one reason I left a past job was because there weren’t project managers. I was
responsible for planning the project—so the bigger the project, the bigger the project planning. The bigger the planning,
the less time I had for other things. The result? The bigger the project, the less strategy we applied to the project!”