Introducing the next level in project risk management: antifragile project management (PRM401)


Standards, by definition, reflect good practice. Good practice is the result of making lots of mistakes and learning from these mistakes. As a profession or industry matures, however, leaps in understanding and practice need to occur. The author proposes that project, portfolio and programme management is ready for such a leap forward.

Every now and then, someone does a research project that aims to identify why projects fail. Too many do. And it seems that while we are making progress, we just can’t seem to crack it.

This is great for the researchers – and if they do a really good job of it, there may even be a book in it.
Why we will never crack it, is probably because of a simple fact: project management is the management of activities in a period of change. Since we are working in the unfamiliar, predicting outcomes becomes hard. This will never go away, unless HG Wells’ sombre view of the future is realised, and humanity stops advancing.

Our response to challenges is good, but not good enough. Some of us project managers have a tendency to be problem solvers and we relish a juicy problem; it is our fix. And some of us live from problem to problem.

The question is: is there a better way?

In September 2010, I wrote about a particular type of problem that a former financial trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, called “The Black Swan”. His book (and his explanation of the 2008 financial crash) made him famous.

He then took a long sabbatical and finally re-emerged in 2012 with an excellent retake on problem solving.

Once again, as in 2010, I believe he has authored one of the most important books for the project manager, even though this is not his primary audience at all.

Maybe he was ruminating on Einstein’s view that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” (Or, as the popular quote has it: “we cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.”)

Project management is maturing nicely, but I think the time has come where we need to start exploring more in other disciplines to find solutions to our big problems – or maybe even embrace them (the problems, that is!).

In 1900, the world looked very different from the way it had ever looked. Having cracked the one billion mark around 1804, mankind was well on its way to two billion, and on the cusp of completely exploring and subduing the last inaccessible places in its immediate environs: the highest peaks; the deepest trenches in the ocean; Earth’s closest neighbour, the moon; terrestrial animals; and each other.

But, already the harbingers of our type of future were looming. Thick palls of smoke covered most major cities, and deep rips in the earth reflected the new hunger for resources.

The first intercontinental telephone call on 21 October 1915 was a harbinger of globalisation, even as the world was locked in the first-ever world war. The sheer destructive inventiveness of that war made some conclude this was also the last war humans would ever fight.
Yeah, right.

This was followed in short shrift by the ability to wipe out almost all life in a second or two – or more slowly, by asphyxiation or other equally painful means.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Somehow, though, this planet has managed to deal with everything we have been able to throw at it or do to it. Why? Because Taleb says it is an ‘antifragile’ system.

Never heard of that? Well, that’s because such a word does not exist (check the dictionary). Taleb had to invent it. And, he says, there is no word that is the exact opposite of fragile.

Ah! you say, that’s ‘resilient’ or ‘robust’. No! he says, robust and resilient both have the sense of rigidity, and the ability to not change when force is applied against them. This is not what he wants. He wants a word that describes something that absorbs attacks and change. Something that can evolve ... before it is wiped out.

So, what has this got to do with projects?

Antifragility, he says, loves randomness and uncertainty. Project Management 101: “A project is a unique endeavour that is subject to constraints of time, cost and scope.”

Or if you like the longer but more descriptive version from Wikipedia: “Project management is the process and activity of planning, organising, motivating and controlling resources, procedures and protocols to achieve specific goals in scientific or daily problems. A project is a temporary endeavour designed to produce a unique product, service or result with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or deliverables), undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value. The temporary nature of projects stands in contrast with business as usual (or operations), which are repetitive, permanent or semi-permanent functional activities to produce products or services.

In practice, the management of these two systems is often quite different, and as such requires the development of distinct technical skills and
management strategies.”

Like the financial markets (the subject of Taleb’s ruminations), many – if not most – projects are fragile. That is why they fail so often.

In fact, robust techniques such as Waterfall methodologies have simply not been able to ensure success, especially where there is much uncertainty and randomness. (So, too, I hesitate to add, quantitative techniques – something Taleb is quite dismissive of if used inappropriately, so I am in good company, and shall be bold.)

These were some of the main subjects of his previous book, The Black Swan. (If you have not already read it, go out and buy it now, or at least get hold of the September 2010 edition of The Project Manager.)

To recap a little, in that book Taleb describes two fictional countries: the one he calls Mediocristan and the other Extremistan. In Mediocristan, quantitative techniques do work. It is possible to go to analogies and manage projects in the same way as done n-times previously, using masses of historical data. But, in Extremistan, there are no historical precursors. Even using rough adapted analogies can ensure failure.

But don’t misunderstand me. This does not mean I am against standards. Yes, standards define the now, and actually deal poorly with randomness and uncertainty. They describe what good practice is. They attempt to be robust and resilient, to provide consistent results. More importantly (for this discussion), they provide us with a common language so that we do not have to waste too much time before we start our conversation, and there are many areas where they are not just necessary but vital to successful endeavours. My point is simply this: there are endeavours where standards are not only unhelpful, but can be distinctly detrimental to success if applied inappropriately. This does not mean we can ditch standards willy-nilly, but that there must be a thoughtful process by which we do this.

In future articles, we will unpack Taleb’s ideas and see how we can use these to improve the way we manage difficult projects.

In the meantime, if you are engaged in one of those impossible projects, I would strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of Taleb’s book, and maybe we can engage in a conversation and do our bit to improve and advance our profession.


Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2013) Antifragile. Things That Gain from Disorder. Penguin Books.
The author, Elmar Roberg, has more than 40 years of managing projects, programmes and portfolios in a variety of industries. He can be reached at roberg@iafrica.com.


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