Project Resilience: Moving beyond traditional risk management


Advances in Project Management Series

By Neil Turner and Elmar Kutsch
Cranfield University

United Kingdom



The evolution of risk management – like many other planning mechanisms in project management – is characterised by the pursuit of quantified expectations of a past-informed future and the ability to automate one’s actions to prepare for it. In the distant past, people were guided by fate and a faith in God’s will. Indeed, the future was perceived to be at the mercy of the gods. These long-held fundamental beliefs started to be challenged during the Renaissance, a period of turmoil, in which the shackles of superstition were challenged and inquisitive people such as the Pascal and de Fermat embraced the concept of forecasting and building the foundations for the theory of probability.

However, the often ‘blind’ adherence to the traditional principles of risk management – probabilistic determinism – and the resulting illusion of certainty was shattered by two bloody World Wars, and in more recent times by major disasters such as the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the world recession, or the rise of world terrorism. Emerging criticism up to the present day has challenged the commonly adopted and advocated view that the past, if repeated often enough, can confidently inform the future (Bernstein 1998):

“Those who live by the numbers may find that the mathematically inspired techniques of modernism have sown the seeds of a destructive technology in which computers have become mere replacements for the snake dancers, the bloodlettings, the genuflections, and the visits to the oracles and witches that characterized risk management and decision making in days of yore.” (Bernstein 1996, p. 51)

Hence, we need a revolution in project (risk) management. We need to think about how to

• notice beyond the risk horizon?
• interpret those entities that cannot be quantified or qualified with confidence?
• prepare better for the effects of what we do not know?
• contain the unknown in a more timely and appropriate manner?

The question is what practices we can define to reach a state of true, although never perfect, resilience? We need practices that allow us to deal with risk, uncertainty and complexity effectively.

The art of noticing

Making people ‘aware’ in a project is a challenge and requires a leadership approach that generates honesty, transparency and openness about risks and uncertainties. We do not suggest a state of paranoia in which a project is constantly thinking and ‘living’ failure. Such a state may only lead to exhaustion and fatalism. However, a state of ‘chronic unease’ (Reason 2008) – a heightened and yet focussed awareness of failure – is one that we can strive for. The following actions may provide a start.


To read entire article (click here)

Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK. Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.



About the Authors


pmwj40-Nov2015-Turner-PHOTONeil Turner

Cranfield University
United Kingdom


Neil Turner
is the Course Director of the MSc in Programme and Project Management at Cranfield University. His current research interests are around organisational learning in the context of complex projects and programmes (the subject of his PhD), with a focus on how organisations (don’t) learn to improve their project performance. He was previously an Engineering Manager in a large multinational telecommunications firm, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.


pmwj40-Nov2015-Turner-PHOTO KUTSCHElmar Kutsch

Germany & UK



“To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.” (Chinese Proverb)

Being uncomfortable is both a challenge and an opportunity for Elmar. As a passionate Skydiver his interests, both privately and professionally, revolve around management of the unexpected. Elmar’s first real exposure to the rather paradox world of uncertainty began in 1998, when he held a variety of commercial and senior management positions within the Information Technology (IT) industry. Working for one of the biggest IT service providers in Germany he was responsible for the successful delivery of a number of large projects, including major roll-out and outsourcing strategies. Clients included the Commerzbank, the Deutsche Börse (German Stock Exchange) and the Polizei Rheinland Pfalz (State Police Rheinland Pfalz). His passion for the management of risk and uncertainty in projects then led him to pursue a career in academia. He served as a Lecturer in Operations Management at the University of Surrey and has been at Cranfield since 2007.