5 Golden Rules for Flexible Project Management

13 Jun

I previously wrote about methods to improve two aspects of project management

  1. Knowledge capture, and
  2. Communication

A focus on the importance of capturing knowledge and improved communication was inspired by a recent publication by Raconteur (Project Management, raconteur.net, #0376, 22\05\2016). Within this Raconteur publication was a piece entitled “The Five Golden Rules of Project Flexibility” (p.4), and provides the inspiration for this article.

Flexibility is essential for sustainable success, but for human beings, it can be very difficult to think and behave with flexibility. Below, I’ll outline some reasons behind this difficulty, before revealing Raconteur’s 5 Golden Rules.

Project flexibility is a psychological process (see Tetlock and Gardner, 2015; Taleb, 2012; Kahneman, 2011; Klein, 2007 for a range of examples). It’s a predominantly a psychological process because flexibility requires an acceptance and vigilance that what is planned, will have to change, and this frequently requires letting go of an investment in which so much time, effort and emotion has been placed.

Plans naturally have to change because any situation involving people, weather, politics and so on, is dynamic, and forecasts beyond incremental predictions, function as educated guesses at best (see Tetlock and Gardner, 2015; Taleb, 2013). The success of plans is at least partly determined by three key events

  • How quickly people pick up on weak signals in an environment
  • How quickly and effectively the weak signals are used to make sense of a situation in a new way
  • How quickly the above two points lead to action

The three events require people to let go of current intentions and actions. This can be particularly difficult for human beings, as the process of letting go potentially leads to loss aversion.

Loss aversion can be defined as a natural human impulse to avoid losses rather than secure gains (Kahneman and Tversky, 1992). As a result, letting go often entails strong feelings of reluctance, and a need to reinforce the status quo. This helps to explain why flexibility has become such a sought after trait in business. Flexibility can be incredibly difficult to do in practice, and is therefore rare.

Loss aversion can become aggravated by psychological defence mechanisms designed to defend the status quo. Once a position has been invested in, and a decision made, any contradictory data that events might not be going to plan has a potential to be explained away. This is well known as the confirmation bias (Kahneman, 2011). The confirmation bias manifests in the active seeking and analysis of data to support an existing position (i.e. confirm it).

Tetlock and Gardner (2015) reinforced the point of loss aversion and confirmation bias by finding the opposite in their recent research. Tetlock et al found in their forecasting tournament, that “super forecasters”, people able to make accurate predictions of short term future events over a sustained period of time, all shared the trait of being able to let go of initial positions.

The ability to let go allowed the super forecasters to adapt frequently based on new and emerging data. Super forecasters were actively looking to disconfirm their initial beliefs. Klein and colleagues (2007, 2014) found similar in their work on experts in field situations (firefighters, nursing, military are examples). Experts were able to decide quickly on a course of action, but were equally able to quickly let go of their initial position based on emerging data (ibid).

Managing a project flexibly requires a culture focused on noticing small deviations in plans, routines and procedures. Frontline work is where the potential to notice small deviations is highest. Frontline workers should record their responses to deviations and these should be feedback to managers (see Rankin et al, 2014, for a good example).

When managers receive this data, they require the expertise to make sense of it. This sense making should be underpinned by an adaptive mind-set which accepts that a plan which took so much time and effort to create, requires adjusting based on emerging data. The last point is a significant one, and worth repeating.

Time, effort, experience and expertise create plans, and they naturally become invested in. A plan psychologically reduces uncertainty as it creates a roadmap for the future. This is very reassuring, the feeling that the future, to some degree, is taken care of. The stronger the investment in the plan, the greater the potential difficulty to let it go.

The difficulty of letting go has consequences for making sense of feedback data. Again, I’ll repeat, If the investment is strong, then data which contradicts the plan can get explained away. And this creates a paradox, short term feelings of security, get traded off for the development of long term risks.

The above points are reflected in Raconteur’s Five Golden Rules for Project Flexibility. I’ve laid the rules out below, along with a note based on their relevance to the points discussed above.

PLAN AHEAD FOR FLEXIBILITY- by imagining what things could go wrong with plans. We’ve used prospective hindsight in our research with excellent results

CREATE TEAMS WHO CAN THINK FOR THEMSELVES- clear communication enables teams to work independently and under their own initiative. This reduces the potential for decisions which lead plans in the wrong direction, and the need to constantly consult managers on “what to do next”. We’ve used easy to apply scripts to calibrate instructions across diffuse teams.

MAINTAIN REAL-TIME VIEW OF ACTVITY- feedback loops are essential to pick up weak signals and adapting effectively. We’ve adjusted questionnaires designed for high risk, fast paced situations, where quick, accurate feedback on plans is essential for not only achieving goals, but for saving lives. The questionnaires have allowed us to create effective feedback loops whilst making minimal inroads into workload and time.

BREAK THE WORK DOWN INTO SMALLER CHUNKS- Tetlock and Gardner (see above) identified in their forecasting research that incremental predictions and continuous adaptions based on new data led to the more accurate forecasts. The further the prediction extends into the future, the more likely that weak signals will be explained away. Breaking work and planning into smaller chunks increases the ability to spot weak signals and adapt accordingly. The narrower horizon focuses current attention, and reduces the emotional investment.

CONSIDER FLEXIBLE CONTRACTING- Our version of flexible contracting means that organisations within a supply chain need to have a similar approach to flexible planning. Otherwise, flexibility is only going to be effective for so far. Negotiating flexible contracts is important, but it’s also important to plan with contractors what go wrong with plans, and what contingencies they have in place to adapt and recover situations. We’ve used a combination of prospective hindsight with innovation scenarios to build flexibility into a supply chain.


Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1992). “Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty”. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 5 (4): 297–323

Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.

Klein, G. (2014). Whose fallacies? Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making, 9, 55-58.

Tetlock, P. E. & Gardner, D. (2015). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. New York: Crown



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