Proceedings of the IFSR Conversation 2012, St. Magdalena, Linz, Austria
Developing Resilience in Project Teams
A Path to Enabling Organizations for Thrivability
In the context of global sustainability and stewardship, this paper pertains to an ongoing systems research conversation, “Enabling organizations for thrivability: New perspectives on form, structure, and process in favor of human and societal prosperity.” It focuses on a central question, “What could we possibly achieve if we co-create radical innovative patterns together, learning from other practitioners who are experienced in biology, technology, sociology, management, development, design, and …?” This question has been posed by Alexander Laszlo as the foundation of an ongoing discussion started at the European Conference for Systems Research (2012) in Vienna, continued at the International Federation for Systems Research Conversation (2012) in Linz, Austria (Chroust and Metcalf, 2012), and developed for a conference theme for the International Society for the Systems Sciences (2013) in Vietnam.
This paper discusses specific themes that emerged from the results of a case study about resilience in a project team (Edson, 2011). The case study explored a university project team which built a solar house as part of a competition in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. The discussion develops the themes, specifically project leadership and organizational culture, into competencies for adaptive capacity and resilience as a path to thrivability. The themes are then applied to a second case of a project team at the Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve in Vietnam.
Project team resilience is the ability of a project team to adapt to and learn from adversity to achieve its goals and objectives while maintaining the integrity of its structure and function. Groups and teams have adaptive capacity when they learn through experience, store knowledge, create flexibility in problem solving, and make decisions that balance power among interest groups. Resilience is the result of a team’s adaptive capacity which encompasses learning to live with change and uncertainty, nurturing diversity for resilience, combining different types of knowledge for learning; and creating opportunity for self-organization towards social- cological sustainability (http://www.resalliance.org/index.php/adaptive_capacity, para. 2, 4).
Attention is given to the impact of organizational culture (Schein, 2004), distinct from anthropological culture (Hall, 1977), on these two approaches (management versus leadership) to conducting projects. The group development model (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977) and the ecological model of adaptation (Gunderson & Holling, 2002) were presented and their terms defined in two previous papers (Edson, 2011, 2010). Specifically, the terms used in these models – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning; exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization, were explored in depth. In addition, the four principles of CAS theory used to understand the relationship between the two models (self-organization, hierarchy, emergence, and learning), as well as creative destruction were clearly defined in the context of the research. For a greater understanding of the concepts presented in this paper, readers are encouraged to refer to the two papers. For a better understanding of the how the study was conducted, readers are encouraged to read the related dissertation (Edson, 2011) available through the ProQuest
An important distinction is made between project management and project leadership. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a project is a temporary, planned activity with a unique goal that is temporary and time bound (2012). Project management in organizations is a strategic
activity that applies knowledge, skills, and techniques to efficiently and effectively execute projects. Project management is further defined as a discipline which involves organizing, planning, and managing the scope (goals, objectives, requirements, and constraints), resources (people, budget, material, and equipment), and time (allocations and deadlines) of a project. PMI states that it entails five processes including: 1.) initiating, 2.) planning, 3.) executing, 4.) monitoring and controlling, and 5.) closing. PMI emphasizes that many projects encompass large, technical initiatives across diverse disciplines and global geographies, and “all must be expertly managed to deliver the on-time, on-budget results, learning and integration that organizations need” (http://www.pmi.org/en/About-Us/About-Us-What-is-Project-Management.aspx, para. 5).
For the purpose of this discussion, project leadership is defined as a project manager’s interpersonal skills to influence team members’ performance to achieve the goals and objectives of the project. This definition is based on Chemers (1997) definition of leadership as, “the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”
Project Team Research
In 2011, I completed a research study of a project team exploring its development for evidence of resilience (Resilience Alliance, 2009) in the face of adversity (McMillen, 1999; Seery, Holman, & Silver, 2010). The study design used a systems research approach of theoretical pluralism (Midgley, 2011) through complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory (Miller & Page, 2007; Schneider & Somers, 2006) to explore the relationship between a group development model (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977) and an ecological adaptation model (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). Briefly, Tuckman
and Jensen’s (1977) phasic model included forming, storming, norming, and performing. Gunderson and Holling’s (2002) dynamic model of ecological adaptation included exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization. The project team was comprised of approximately 200 students and faculty at Cornell University (CUSD). CUSD was one of twenty academic teams that had entered into an international competition sponsored by the DOE to build a solar home as part of the department’s consumer education program for energy efficiency, the Solar Decathlon (http://www.solardecathlon.gov/).
Through data analysis of 30 interviews (Kvale, 1996) with the CUSD’s project team members and archival documents (Werner, 2009), a relationship between the two models was established using four principles of CAS theory. CAS are diverse, interconnected systems that exhibit self-organization (purposeful internal evolution), hierarchy (certainty created through structures that bring order and meaning), emergence (a coherent and integrated dynamic of innovation), and learning (planned application of experience to future events) in response to environmental feedback in light of uncertainty (Ahl & Allen, 1996; Ashby, 1962; Argyris, 1999; Bennett & Bennett, 2004; Corning, 2002; Gunderson & Holling, 2002; Goldstein, 1999; Holland, 1992, 1999; Kauffman 1993,1996; Lewes, 1875; Mintzberg & Westley, 1992). In addition to comparing and contrasting the models to understand the relationship between the models, the results were analyzed for evidence of creative destruction (Schumpeter, 1942; Sombart, 1913), in which innovation supplants established processes that no longer serve the goals and objectives of the project team.
Since the inception of the DOE’s Solar Decathlon in 2002, CUSD had built three different solar homes (2005, 2007, and 2009) and reorganized three times for each project, incorporating lessons learned from experience into the next iteration of their work. Over a two year period (2007-2009), CUSD constructed a unique, cylindrical, solar home and successfully competed in the DOE’s 2009 Solar Decathlon despite a $60,000 shortfall. The research results showed that CUSD exhibited Tuckman and Jensen’s (1977) phasic model of group development – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. In addition, the project team manifested processes of Gunderson and Holling’s (2002) model of ecological adaptation – exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization. Significant transformation resulting from a major shift in how CUSD operated at a critical inflection point (Jarman & Land, 1992) demonstrated creative destruction. Nested cycles of adaptation through norm renegotiation occurred at multiple levels throughout the team.
Beyond establishing a relationship between the group development and ecological adaptation models, the CUSD data analysis revealed that resilience in a project team is dependent upon agency on its own behalf to sustain, adapt, and transcend itself in the face of uncertainty (Prigogine, 1997). In other words, a project team’s success in achieving its goals and objectives depends on its adaptive capacity. The research showed CUSD’s adaptive capacity through its ability to consciously recognize the necessity of change, to consciously take behavioral and material action to adapt, and to embrace change through creative destruction, innovation, an integrative learning. The distinction between project management and emergent project leadership was clearly evident by the acknowledgment by the team of the contributions made by a key individual (PL1).
After the 2009 Solar Decathlon concluded, CUSD adjourned, reflecting on its learning and reorganizing for its next project. In its third reorganization, CUSD’s adopted an expanded agenda focusing on sustainable design beyond the DOE’s efficiency agenda for the Solar Decathlon. As a result, the team no longer competes in the Solar Decathlon. CUSD currently has three different, sustainable design projects in progress internationally.
The most salient themes from the research that relate to thrivability are project leadership and organizational culture. Project leadership (an influential role beyond project management) may be leveraged to develop adaptive capacity and resilience as a pathway to thrivability through integrating understanding of the context in which a project team is operating (i.e. its organizational culture). In other words, developing leadership competencies at the project management level may support increased adaptive capacity through group norm renegotiation around managing uncertainty, especially when the culture and environment support adaptation. As transformative leverage points, project leadership and organizational culture are relevant to the central topic given the larger context of global sustainability. Specifically, the context includes stakeholders with global imperatives including urgency around human survival and sustainability in a rapidly changing world environmentally, economically, and socially. Project leadership is pivotal in the success or failure of a project team’s achievement because it touches all its goals and objectives.
Project Leadership Lessons from Ecological adaptive Management
A case study by Frances Westley in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Gunderson & Holling, 2002) outlines characteristics of “the adaptive manager as decision maker” (p. 352). Westley states that a key to adaptive decision making, as opposed to rational and traditional decision making, is “to strengthen the match between decisions and the demands of the decision making environment” (p. 352). She notes that in ecological systems there are at least four decision making environments including the ecosystem, the political system, the organizational system, and the interorganizational system. Westley cites a specific case of an environmental manager, Evan Karel, who successfully negotiated the complexity of his project and its stakeholders to become an adaptive manager. The lessons for adaptive managers that Westley derived from the case are summarized as follows:
- Adaptive management requires strong values as opposed to rational analysis. Karel grew up with a love of science and respect for people in equal parts.
- Adaptive management requires juggling multiple strategies and goals. Karel exhibited aptitudes for being a scientist collaborator, politician, and agency manager simultaneously.
- Adaptive management requires strong emotional self-discipline, little aversion to conflict, and great humility. Karel recognized when he was arrogant and how it backfired during attempts to coordinate agency and community interests. He acknowledged the essential role of building trust to foster cooperation.
- Adaptive management requires that the manager capitalize on the energy and movement of others, which entails a keen sensibility to recognizing opportunities for emergence and leveraging them. Karel was positioned to evaluate opportunities because of his involvement at the four decision making levels. He make efforts to be inclusive in his decision making process by involving disparate parties and interests. (pp. 352-354)
Upon review of Westley’s (2002) case study, its similarity to PL1’s project management was remarkable. The following analysis outlines the parallels between PL1’s role leading the CUSD team and Westley’s view of adaptive management:
- Adaptive management requires strong values as opposed to rationale analysis. As a carpenter working in Annapolis, MD, PL1 attended the DOE’s Solar Decathlon in 2005. PL1 subsequently applied to the Art, Architecture, and Planning Program to specifically get involved with the solar house project. PL1 chose to enroll in Cornell’s program because he had strong appreciation of architecture and great respect for the 2005 project team. He apprenticed during the 2007 project with the objective of learning as much as he could about project management and construction. Clearly, he wanted to be a part of a project and a community who shared his values about sustainable design and construction.
- Adaptive management requires juggling multiple strategies and goals. PL1 exhibited aptitudes for being an architect, collaborator, politician, and agency manager simultaneously through his competence in understanding the project at technical, interpersonal, and organizational levels.
- Adaptive management requires strong emotional self-discipline, little aversion to conflict, and great humility. From the comments made during the interviews, PL1 was humble about what he did not know, competent about what he did know, and magnanimous when dealing with peers and others. PL1 did not appear to relish conflict; however, he did not back away when the project’s goals and objectives were in question. He showed confidence in the face of uncertainty. PL1 elicited respect and trust at every level in the decision making process including team members, faculty, university administration, alumni, and the board of trustees. As a result, the project team had strong cohesion and commitment, as well as collaboration at multiple levels with seemingly divergent goals.
- Adaptive management requires that the manager capitalize on the energy and movement of others, which entails a keen sensibility to recognizing opportunities for emergence and leveraging them. PL1 positioned himself, first as an apprentice and then as a leader, to evaluate opportunities because of his involvement at the four decision making levels (team member, subteam leadership, leadership board, and trustee leadership). PL1’s recruitment of essential talent at critical junctures in the project demonstrated his ability to identify project team’s needs and exploit the necessary resources to get them filled. For example, PL1 enlisted MBAs to organize the business team and an architecture/sculpture student to design and fabricate the kitchen module.
PL1 attempted to be inclusive in his decision making process by honoring the democratic organizational structure and eliciting diverse opinions, especially from subteam leaders (Postmes, Spears, & Cihangir, 2001). As an adaptive manager who put the goals and objectives of the team before his individual, ego driven prerogatives, PL1 emerged as an example of servant leadership (Greenleaf, Spears, & Covey, 2002).
The correspondence between adaptive management and successful project management has several implications for project leadership and organizational resilience. First, a project leader needs to compellingly share the goals, objectives, and vision for the project as the team and its stakeholders. Organizationally, this assumes that the project leader agrees with the means to the end (organizational structure, processes, and feedback), as well as the end product (goal). Second, a strong project leader ideally should have experience at multiple levels of the project to understand how processes work and how much time is necessary to achieve desired results. From
the data, it was clear that the project leader need not be an expert in every area, but understands the limits of personal knowledge. Understanding one’s limitations, the successful project leader trusts and listens to team members to gather the necessary information for decision making. This requires a degree of comfort with and an ability to manage uncertainty at different levels (personal, team, project, and environment). Third, successful project leaders address conflicts directly, yet with diplomacy. Again, the underlying project leadership attributes of trust building and humility support resolution of conflicts by working toward a common vision and collaboration. Fourth, a successful project leader is able to recognize momentum and maintain it through the project’s completion. A universal thread throughout these four aspects of project leadership is a humanistic value of respecting the people with whom you work and understanding that they want to achieve the common purpose to which they committed.
Project Leadership for Thrivability – the CAT BA Biosphere Reserve
Integration of CAS principles, specifically self-organization, hierarchy, emergence, and learning, with the project leadership competencies revealed in the research study of CUSD2009’s resilience may provide powerful leverage in projects focused on global sustainability and thrivability. For example, in this section, these factors are cast into a global context provided in a case study about managing the Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve (CBBR), Vietnam, in a paper by Nguyen, Graham, Ross, Maani, and Bosch (2012). In this discussion, I apply what was learned from the research results from CUSD2009 to the case of CBBR.
Briefly, the purpose of the CBBR project, a pilot program described in Nguyen et.al (2012), was to educate a group of Vietnamese environmental and developmental professionals about sustainable management of a world biosphere reserve systems thinking approaches to transcend organizational and disciplinary divisions. The paper describes not only the transformative learning that took place during the project, but also the systemic approaches applied by the CBBR team to conduct the project, such as effective use of feedback to adapt the presentation of material (specifically, communication techniques internally and externally).
The CBBR team was primarily composed of nine academic staff members from the former School of Integrative Systems (SIS) at the University of Queensland, Australia. The CBBR team was cross-cultural, including a Vietnamese academic as essential support to the program leader. Like the CUSD project team, the CBBR project team consciously chose a democratic, “peer-topeer” form. While Nguyen et.al (2012) focused on the delivery of education, the paper describes the high degree of interaction and feedback with the participants that prompted adaptation by the CBBR team to accommodate their requests. From the reflections expressed in the paper, the team can be observed as moving through phases of Tuckman and Jensen’s (1977) group development model, as well as demonstrating CAS principles of self-organization, hierarchy, emergence, and learning at multiple levels. The extent of transformative learning is evidence not only at the conclusion of the program, but during a post program evaluation six months later.
Project leadership competencies demonstrated by the CBBR team are described as follows:
- Adaptive management requires strong, humanistic values (Weisbord, 2004) as opposed to rational analysis. While rational analysis may have served as the foundation for the instructional design of the pilot program, the CBBR team commenced the program with a strong sense of humanistic values by involving the participants in critical decisions concerning content, delivery, and evaluation of the program from the beginning during self-organization (Nguyen et.al, 2012). Using learning adult principles outlined by Burns (1995, 2002), collaboration, cooperation, and self-reflection were inculcated into the program. Through application of these principles, the CBBR team adapted the program to suit the participants’ needs such as communication skills for “managing up” and sharing information with local stakeholders.
- Adaptive management requires juggling multiple strategies and goals within multiple levels of cultural contexts. The CBBR team applied multiple learning strategies to convey knowledge to participants through use of systems thinking models, as well as mind mapping (Buzan & Buzan, 1996), force field techniques (Carmen & Keith, 1994), focus groups (Krueger & Casey, 2000), and the fishbone technique of evaluation (Malouf, 2003). The delivery of education occurred at multiple levels of learning through auditory, visual, and kinesthetic methods (Markova, 1995; Markova & Holland, 2005). Since the goal of the program was to instill competencies to advance the sustainability initiatives of the CBBR, the experiential portions of the program were essential in securing participants’ competency in rural community development and collaborative management using participatory methods and gender analysis tools. This was demonstrated by the observation made by Nguyen et.al (2012) that,
The mixed mode of delivery of the training programme (short courses, meetings and field visits) was effective and successful. Participants learnt the theories, concepts and techniques in the short courses, and then were given a chance to see many of these applied in practice. The participants have taken away many lessons and new knowledge, and many of them have been successfully applied into their work.
The effective use of hierarchy, organized teaching models and methods that fostered efficient knowledge transfer was evident from the CBBR team’s outcomes.
- Adaptive management requires strong emotional self-discipline, little aversion to conflict, and great humility. These characteristics are not easily observed in the paper by Nguyen et.al (2012) perhaps because of the inherent humility of the authors themselves or the nascent way these characteristics manifest. These characteristics are sometimes tacitly understood and emergent. Evident in the paper is the extent of care put into the design, implementation, adaptation, and application of the pilot program. Personal knowledge of two of the leaders of this program allow me to extend that the project was led with judicious planning and attention to detail with responsiveness to participants’ concerns. The degree of adaptation of the program required the ability to confront shortfalls and conflict in timely and effective ways. The CBBR team had to overcome several obstacles, such as lack of integrated planning, through critical reflection and evaluation. The regularly scheduled evaluations provided feedback that demonstrated self-discipline, low aversion to conflict, and humility to some extent by actively seeking out criticism that would improve the program in the short and long-term.
- Adaptive management requires that leaders capitalize on the energy and movement of others, which entails a keen sensibility to recognizing opportunities for emergence and leveraging them. The pilot program instituted by Nguyen et.al (2012) has capitalized on the energy and movement of the initial group of environmental and development professionals by mobilizing advocates for their program throughout Vietnam. This is shown by the authors’ reflections that the project has “started to ‘snowball’”: While education and learning were the main objectives of the CBBR pilot program, it was observed that learning was occurring at multiple levels and dimensions, as this excerpt states,
In addition, the value of this programme for participants representing different levels of governance could go some distance in removing barriers of communication and information flows and improve decision making processes. It has also developed a common understanding of the issues created – a shared vision and commitment for action. Because the participants hold relevant and important positions directly related to the management of the CBBR, the involvement of power and leadership, as suggested by Vemuri (2009), will be of significant importance for the seamless continuation of the CBBR project.
The multi-disciplinary and systemic approach helped participants co-create value for themselves and one another, as well as to become more resilient in their own roles as environmental and development professionals. The multi-dimensional approach served to strengthen rather than fragment the effectiveness of the program.
Based on project team research viewed through a lens of CAS and an adaptive model used in ecology, the CUSD research study and the CBBR case study addressed “thrivability” in terms of collaboration, innovation, and learning. Specifically, both cases explored how project teams collaborate to co-create value as complex adaptive social systems in a multidisciplinary environment (Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale, 1999; Page, 2007). Organizational resilience, specifically through adaptive capacity including competencies of project leadership and adaptive management as shown by these cases, was revealed as an outcome of learning through leveraging multidisciplinary experience.
Summary and Conclusions
Four key project leadership competencies that support organizational resilience and global thrivability are:
- Project leadership requires strong, humanistic values as opposed to rational analysis. The process of self-organization is not a straight-line progression. It is dynamic with elements of forming, storming, and norming. Humanistic values provide a basis of human respect toward building trust that team members appreciate as they proceed through the group development process, working towards common goals and objectives.
- Project leadership requires juggling multiple strategies and goals within multiple levels of cultural contexts. This may be understood to mean “have a plan but do not cling to it.” Organizational structures, like training methods and budgets, provide artifacts of common meaning mutual understanding.
- Project leadership requires strong emotional self-discipline, little aversion to conflict, and great humility.
- Project leadership requires that leaders capitalize on the energy and movement of others, which entails a keen sensibility to recognizing opportunities for emergence and leveraging them.
Continual scanning the external environment and stakeholders for indicators of change and feedback is critical for team adaptation at the organizational level, as well as at the global level. CUSD learned this lesson late in their project and had to change quickly. In contrast, the CBBR pilot involved stakeholders early and often, eliciting periodic evaluations for feedback and adaptation. One strategy uses periodic SWOT analysis to check that the team’s goals remain relevant and in alignment with the objectives of the larger vision and purpose for the project. This strategy builds adaptive capacity that promotes project team and organizational resilience. From a systems perspective, the outcome suggests that project teams and their leaders should function as open systems rather than closed by soliciting feedback from relevant stakeholders and their operating environments.
Both CUSD and CBBR teams demonstrated the importance of diversity on multiple levels. An attitude of openness to understanding differences and finding similarities, whether technical, organizational, or cultural is characteristic of project leadership for thriving global communities. The CBBR team actively recognized the need for cultural understanding by retaining a Vietnamese academic in a leadership role from the beginning of the pilot. While useful cross-cultural sensibilities may not have been necessary for CUSD, but for CBBR and projects like it, they are critical to the success and thrivability of such endeavors. Adaptation that considers cultural context, norms, and consequences of change is more likely to be adopted in local implementation.
Organizational change is difficult because of systemic interdependencies with embedded hierarchies. In other words, organizational culture can become embedded and intractable resulting in resistance by the actors. This phenomenon can be observed in artifacts, processes, and behaviors that become implicitly accepted and inculcated into daily operations. This is evidence of Bertalanffy’s (1969) principle of “progressive mechanization,” in which hierarchy in an organization creates specialization in the pursuit of efficiency (p. 213). Yet, an organization becomes inflexible because hierarchy assumes stability in the environment (p. 213). As Farson (1996) puts it, “this presents us with the paralyzing absurdity that the situations we try hardest to avoid in our organizations would actually be the most beneficial for them” (p. 126). As a result, the inclination to address uncertainty with increased control is counterproductive.
In Gunderson and Holling’s (2003) model of ecological adaptation the tension between hierarchical stability and progressive emergence is at the inflection point between Conservation and Release. When the tension is so great that it puts the socio-ecological system at risk, the inflection point indicates a threshold for Creative Destruction. In organizations, hierarchy is useful in providing structure; however, when hierarchy becomes bureaucracy it impedes progress and innovation by binding organizational resources. An adversity or crisis, especially one that introduces requisite variety (Ashby, 1962) through diversity, at this inflection point prompts evaluation for conformity and renegotiation of group norms. As a result of adversity, the organization is faced with uncertainty.
Project team leaders who keep their teams focused on the vision and goals of their projects through adept management of uncertainty are successful in overcoming adversity. They build adaptive capacity through learning from experience. Comfort with uncertainty and leveraging diversity are essential factors in successful adaptation to change. As observed in CUSD2009, diversity in terms of multiple disciplines and cultural points of view can potentially strengthen an organization rather than disrupt it (Seery, Holman & Silver, 2010). Project leaders who have crosscultural sensibilities can leverage team strengths and mitigate weaknesses by consciously addressing value differences (Jehn, Northcraft & Neale, 1999). Embracing change (incremental and transformational) and trust in the emergence of innovation are hallmarks of project team and organizational resilience.
In conclusion, leaders of organizations that have made resilience and global thrivability top priorities need to focus their attention on leverage points that will support development of adaptive capacity. Project managers can play an essential role “enabling organizations for thrivability” through development of four project leadership competencies described in these two case studies. Three recommended approaches that may be effective in bringing these competencies into organizations are: 1.) implementing selection processes that elicit interviewee demonstration of these four competencies for project management positions, 2.) participative education and training in these competencies, and 3.) cross-cultural and project team coaching that develops the organizational bench strength in these competencies. Further, senior organizational leadership is encouraged to evaluate its positions concerning risk tolerance and the extent of its expectations concerning organizational culture and conformity to norms. Finally, to combat organizational tendencies towards “group-think,” senior leaders might consider evaluating the effectiveness of organizational feedback methods from internal and external stakeholders (Janis, 1971, 1982). Groups at all levels tend to become insular. Project team leaders are wise to confirm the relevance of the organizational goals and objectives in the context in which the outcomes will operate.
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