What is a resilient mindset?

When the latest edition of the Program Management Professional (PMP) Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide names “embracing adaptability and resiliency” as one of its core project management principles, it is evident that resiliency has made its way to the mainstream. As planning based management is all by upended by the Agile mindset, resiliency is fast becoming part of the accepted business jargon. In only one edition, the fixation on scope, cost and schedule has been subtly replaced by a focus on adaptability, high performing teams, systems thinking, complexity management and value as the ultimate indicator of success. Outputs have been dropped in favor of outcomes. And resiliency is at the core of the shift. But what is resiliency and how does one achieve a resilient mindset?

There are quite a few definitions of the concept and even more formal attempts to explore the underlying mechanisms. The layman definitions such as the ones in the PMBOK Guide orbit around the ability to absorb negative impacts and recover quickly from failures. This relates directly to the Agile “fast fail, fast recovery”, which itself derives from the complexity notion that in fluid environments or situations, fast trial-and-error learning loops are most effective. More formal definitions from applied complexity science might invoke the ability of an organism to remain coherent as its environment changes drastically and suddenly. Expanding on the concept even further, Nassim Taleb has introduced “antifragility” as a sort of “proactive” resiliency defined by the ability to leverage and benefit from a disordered environment.

Back in 2013, I wrote a brief blog titled “light foot strategy”. I used the metaphor of crossing a stream by stepping on (potentially unstable) stones. I made the point that minimal planning and lots of improvisation is a superior strategy to exhaustive planning. I also affirmed that this is akin to being Agile and hinted at resiliency as a key enabler. I did not however explore the idea to its fullest extent. In particular, the phrasing “light foot” wasn’t chosen at random in the crossing the stream analogy. It was meant to suggest that one should never lean all their weight on any one foot or single stone as they cross the stream. Rather, one should expect that no stone is stable and so use light and quick steps to cross the stream. It is a good real-life example of the mindset that I associate with resiliency.

My previous “light foot” metaphor was more physical and visual in nature. How does it translate to a resilient mindset? In short, by never leaning excessively on previous experiences and past events. These are the “anchor points” to our pre-existing mental models with which we engage reality. Too many firmly fixed anchor points, i.e., strongly held beliefs based on experience, and we can’t adapt to rapid change. Too few and loose anchor points and we are unstable when faced with flux. Somewhere in between those two extremes we find an effective resiliency mindset. Rapid testing of existing assumptions is critical to establishing new anchor points up until a mental model can morph to match the novel situation. As importantly, guiding principles and personal values that are not situation dependent provide overall consistency and coherence under such shifts in perspective. Evolving one's perspective and maturing one's understanding doesn't at all mean losing one's identity.

A great case-in-point example of resiliency is how the PMI pivoted its body of knowledge to Agile rather than risk falling out of relevance with the prevailing mindset. The pivot of the recently released 7th edition of the PMBOK Guide can be considered radical as cost, schedule and scope no longer appear as part of the Project Performance Domains!

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