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Resilience: how to identify it and how to embed it

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Dave Waller resilience.jpg

It’s the word on everyone’s lips, but what actually constitutes a ‘resilient’ team or person? Dave Waller investigates

Three men are stuck in a tin can on the far side of the moon, when their oxygen tanks suddenly explode. So they find themselves floating, 250,000 miles from earth, alone, with the air and power failing – facing the question of how they can possibly get back.

The legend of Apollo 13 may have turned 50 this year, but it still boggles the mind, not least in how a collaboration that stretched from the cosmos to Houston managed to respond to impossible odds and get the astronauts safely home.

If the global economy were a space capsule, then COVID-19 is its exploding oxygen tanks. And the word now being thrown around in response, like expletives on a stricken space craft, is ‘resilience’.

Resilience is the quality that allows us to react in the face of unpredictable, uncontrollable events. It’s how we adapt, replan and adjust our approach – and still deliver the goods.

Eddie Kilkelly, director at Changescope and member of the APM People Specific Interest Group (SIG), uses the Apollo 13 disaster as his go-to illustration of resilience.

“I joke that, as project managers, we run from one calamity to another,” he says. “Without resilience it would be easy to crumble; with resilience you can bounce back and spring forward.”

What resilience looks like
Resilience is relatively easy to spot. It manifests in a team’s results and in its people. A resilient team will have strong morale. And while it’s likely to be diverse – having people from different backgrounds, levels of experience and roles will equip the team with the expertise and perspective to react to any eventuality – the team will be united in mentality. When things get tough, people step up to help each other.

“They’re prepared to ensure the project succeeds, even if that means putting their own career goals to one side,” says Rob Blakemore, deputy programme manager at the Home Office and member of the APM People SIG committee. “In a non-resilient team, people will point out that the task is not in their job description.”

A resilient team will also secure buy-in for their project from other stakeholders – whether that’s in the technical development or commercial team, the finance department or the user community. And rather than blindly carrying on towards its milestones as if the external situation hadn’t changed, it will easily shift, often with ideas sourced from these partners.

How to embed resilience
Delegating tasks and letting people go off in different directions is easy. But resilience requires unity and focus. The manager of a resilient project will set the project’s vision and clearly communicate its values.

“It comes down to galvanising the team around the vision and objective, and giving everyone a sense of purpose and identity,” says Kilkelly. “If they can see what the project is doing and why, people will go the extra mile.”

An agile project method can bolster resilience, as the sprint model lends itself to regularly rethinking what can be removed from the current scope of work, while sticking to the project’s critical path. Backlog is dealt with, while priorities respond and shift. Yet resilience still requires good planning, which will show you where you can afford risks and where you can’t. It just needs to be loose enough that it doesn’t suffocate.

“Good planners estimate well and they build in contingencies,” says Blakemore, “so if something goes wrong, they already have a certain amount of slack in their plan.”

The resilient individual
But it’s not just teams that must be resilient. Individuals must be too. At the root of resilience lies wellbeing, a key element of which is mental health. Factors such as good diet, exercise and hydration have a role to play, as does self-confidence, born of self-efficacy and self-esteem. If the individual can see themselves doing things well, they’re more likely to approach new and unexpected tasks positively.

As such, the responsibility for individual resilience doesn’t rest with the person alone. They will be willing to be vulnerable and ask for help from across the organisation – and this requires a supportive environment. That person has to know they won’t be castigated for failing to hit existing targets in these new circumstances. Constant communication from the project manager is critical, recognising the impact of the change and the contribution of the team.

Finally, resilient individuals will be prepared to let things go. “As project managers, we can be incredibly stubborn when people ask us to make a change,” says Kilkelly. “Sometimes it can make the whole world fall apart. We need the ability to say: ‘Ok that was yesterday; where are we going today?’”

Had the Apollo 13 team not been equipped to ask that, Houston would have had a far bigger problem.

You can read more blogs on good people management by visiting APM’s blog archive, including the recent post by Ann Pilkington ‘Is your project a good listener?’.

Brought to you by Project journal

Image: Sathaporn Sumarai/Shutterstock


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  1. Alison Lawson
    Alison Lawson 10 August 2020, 02:11 PM

    Be good to see resilience including in PM training (Level 4 and above)....