Are Projects and Project Managers Fragile, Robust or Anti-Fragile?


Advances in Project Management Series

By Prof Tony Bendell

Services Limited & the Anti-Fragility Academy

Nottingham UK


It may be said that we live in depressing times.  Our media is full of failing and failed organisations.  From the financial crises to the BBC, from the US IRS or the Veterans Health Administration, to the UK Houses of Parliament, all around us is the evidence that our systems and safeguards are failing to protect the stakeholders from the slings and arrows of outrageous management, and an ever more demanding and volatile environment.  Clearly, modern life has an enormous dependence on the integrity of human systems.

But what of Projects? Are they more or less liable to failure? Is our Project Management any better than our operations management? Of course, projects also fail all too frequently to deliver on time, to cost and to requirement. This is true whether we consider the Catalogue of Catastrophe in development projects around the world, including boreholes and wells in Africa, the De Havilland Comet, the Swedish Navy’s new flagship that sank on its maiden voyage, failure of government projects such as the UK’s Department for Transport Shared Services Centre, or IT projects such as the early IBM Stretch supercomputer project. Project failure is not new and, it can be argued, not adequately safeguarded against, even today.


However, “Risk” is itself a human construct; our way of coping with, and trying to predict and manage the unknown.  It reflects the fact that: “Organisations of any kind face internal and external factors and influences that make it uncertain whether, when and the extent to which they will achieve or exceed their objectives” (ISO 31000:2009).  “Risk” is then defined as the effect this uncertainty has on the organisation’s objectives.  This view of risk as a human construct is valid, whether or not one believes in a probabilistic, or a deterministic universe, and applies as much in project management to achieving project objectives, as it does in operations.

The key issue for both operations management and project management is that looking at risk as we do in this way, is not completely helpful, particularly in a complex turbulent world in which there is an apparently increasing incidence of so-called Black Swans. These are those low probability, unpredictable events with major consequences. In my book `Building Anti-Fragile Organisations; Risk, Opportunity and Governance in a Turbulent World` (Gower June 2014) I argued that, despite good intents, much of Risk Analysis and Management as we know it today is part of the problem, not of the solution.  My argument is that the way we conceive and approach Risk and its Management, has led to increased exposure and fragility.

The core of this argument is based on application of the Anti-Fragility concepts of Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, who has been extensively lauded for his insights into the recent banking and economic crisis.  There is no doubt that whilst Taleb is a Professor of Finance, much of his arguments about risk, and in particular his emerging view of Anti-Fragility, apply also in other domains, such as companies, Healthcare systems and Organisational design and management, as well as, indeed, to projects of all types.

Organisations, systems and projects may be Fragile, Robust or Anti-Fragile.

  • Fragile refers to systems, organisations and projects that can be easily damaged in terms of meeting their objectives by changes or shocks in the external or internal environment.
  • Robust refers to systems, organisations and projects that are able to withstand such adverse conditions.
  • Anti-Fragile refers to systems, organisations and projects that, like biological systems, are more than just robust and can keep functioning and within limits actually improve their resilience and performance through being stressed.

Anti-Fragility is a new way of thinking about mitigating risk.  With this view, to find out about risk avoidance, mitigation and management in human systems or projects we focus on the analogous characteristics of biological systems that, being more than just robust, actually improve their resilience through being stressed. Wouldn’t we like that to be true about our projects also?

Applying this concept to the planning, deployment and management of projects of all types allows us to identify the characteristics of these that will not only mitigate against the realisation of hazards, but will enable growth in protection over time.  At the project level, Anti-Fragility (or not) is defined by the project strategy, structure and systems, its people, relationships and the culture of the project team.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in UK and by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.


About the Author

Professor Tony Bendell

Services Limited & the Anti-Fragility Academy
Nottingham UK



Respected academic, and international expert on improvement, Tony is a well-known invited speaker at Conferences worldwide, and formerly the Rolls-Royce funded Professor of Quality Management at the University of Leicester UK. A leading figure in quality and productivity improvement and excellence, he has published extensively and is principle author of the bestselling Financial Times book on Benchmarking available in 6 languages.

His most recent book `Building Anti-Fragile Organizations’ published by Gower in June 2014, examines the shortcomings of conventional risk analysis, the impact of Black Swans, and the strategic, cultural, process and people requirements for the development of systems and organisations that get stronger from being stressed.

Prof. Bendell also has extensive international knowledge of the field of Lean & Six Sigma. This has been added to by Professor Bendell’s unique experience as chair of BSI Technical Committee MS6 that developed the new ISO18404:2015 certifiable Lean & Six Sigma international standard, and his current role as project manager of the sector scheme set up by the Royal Statistical Society in cooperation with the major UKAS accredited certification bodies to allow accredited certification against ISO18404.

Tony has been involved in implementing Lean and Process Improvement and Six Sigma programmes in numerous manufacturing and service companies and the public sector. This includes work with the NHS, the Police and Local Authorities as well as companies in electronics, construction, the oil industry, automotive, food and the service sector.

He is regarded as a thought leader in the Excellence and Quality fields and a leader into research on Quality Methods, Management, Measurement and Benchmarking. As well as the UK Government’s DTI “Managing in the 90’s” booklet on the Quality Gurus, he has also written major management texts for the Financial Times and Sunday Times, including ones on Benchmarking and Implementing Quality in the Public Sector. His most recent book on “Building Anti Fragile Organisations; Risk and Opportunities in Turbulent Times” was published by Gower in 2014.

Tony has always been active in trying to improve the practice of Project Management, having taught Project Management and Emergency Management up to Masters level, and also worked much lower down the education scale on programmes like the Ministry of Justice’s Lean Constructor programme. He believes passionately that we need to improve both the training and practice in Project Management, to at least the same level as in Operations.

The Anti-Fragility Academy was set up by Professor Tony Bendell in 2013 to offer evaluation, consultation and advice to organisations as to how they might render themselves less fragile.