Adaptability and Resilience

Cultivating Adaptability and Resilience

By Cyndi Synder Dionisio, Lead for the PMBOK ® Guide & President | Cynergy2

There is a principle in the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition about adaptability and resilience, and if there is anything the past 2 years has taught us, it is the need for adaptability and resilience. The principle states: 

“Build adaptability and resiliency into the organization’s and project team’s approaches to help the project accommodate change, recover from setbacks, and advance the work of the project.” 

With the rapid pace and relentless need for transformation we are all facing change fatigue - so how can we continue to not just adapt but thrive in this environment? In this article I’ll talk about personal adaptability and resilience and provide you with some ways you can cultivate these two important qualities. 

Cultivating Adaptability 

Adaptability isn’t just about being able to adjust to new or changing conditions, environments, trends and other circumstances; it is about being able to adjust quickly, calmly and effectively. Change is often accompanied by stress, uncertainty, anxiety, self-doubt, and other limiting feelings. To move past these feelings and cultivate adaptability, we can take steps to prepare for a changing environment. When I say prepare, I’m not talking about preparing for a specific change, I am talking about updating your mindset and the way you think about change. There are three ways you can prepare yourself to function effectively in a rapidly changing environment. 

  1. Be observant. Rather than waiting for the next shift in your job, the competition, the market, etc., spend time observing what is happening. Look for trends and indicators of what is likely to happen. This behavior can put you in front of the change rather than being taken by surprise. Being ahead of the change allows you to maintain a sense of calm and prepare for what is coming.  
  1. Develop a growth mindset. Rather than seeing change as something that is bad, frightening or irritating, focus on what you can learn. What new skills can you develop? How will the new situation help you? Find ways you can turn it to your advantage. This mindset will help you maintain a positive attitude and shift your thinking from victim to victor.  
  1. Learn to accept change. Things are going to change whether we want them to or not and whether we are ready for them to or not. As the quote from Star Trek says, ‘resistance is futile’. Therefore, the faster you can accept it, plan for it, and even leverage and grow from it, the happier you will be. 

With change and transformation, preparation is only half the game. The other half is how you respond. There are several ways you can foster adaptability in the face of disruption. To start with, be curious and openminded. Ask questions and listen with an open mind. Try and understand what led to the current situation, what it means for you and your organization, and how to support the change.  

Next, think about the situation from multiple perspectives. Talk with your team members and colleagues. Get their take on the situation. Apply that curiosity we talked about above. When you can see a situation from multiple perspectives, you are more effective in dealing with the challenges it can bring.  

Which brings us to the next aspect of cultivating adaptability – approach the situation as a problem-solving opportunity. There are plenty of problem-solving frameworks you can apply to provide some structure to the process. Most of them have these common elements: 

Define the problem → identify the solution criteria →  generate options →  consider risks associated with the options  →  evaluate the options using the criteria  →  choose the best option.  

To strengthen your adaptability mindset when you are generating options, look for innovative solutions, foster creative thinking, and stretch your imagination. Don’t settle for the easiest or even the safest response. Think bigger, thing differently. You may end up with the easiest or safest response, but don’t lose the opportunity for innovation. 

Given that a change in the environment or conditions is often accompanied by a change in job roles and responsibilities – develop your skill set. This may mean developing new technical skills, or it may mean acquiring or brushing up on leadership and interpersonal skills. Afterall, it has been said that it isn’t the strongest or most intelligent that survive, but the most adaptable.  

Cultivating Resilience 

Another key quality we can all benefit from is resilience. Resilience is the ability to adjust to or recover readily from adversity, crisis, setbacks, change, and other significant sources of stress. We don’t have the luxury of evolutionary change. We must adapt quickly and recover quickly.  

Here are four ways you can cultivate resilience in your work and personal life. 

  1. Keep things in perspective. While a disruption or change may seem like a major concern, if you can step back and look at it from a wider lens, you will often find it is not as monumental as you first thought. Keeping things in perspective can include asking yourself, in the overall scheme of things, is this going to be a big deal in my life? Or does it just seem that way now? 
  1. Maintain a positive outlook. Thinking of all the things that could go wrong, or how awful the situation is, is counterproductive. No matter what the situation, endeavor to find a way to maintain a positive attitude. Your ability to recover from adversity is directly influenced by your attitude. Pay attention to both your internal words and your external words. The things you tell yourself are just as important as what you say out loud. Keep both conversations positive. 
  1. Accept change. Accepting change is a part of building resilience as well as adaptability. We can’t recover and move on if we are still holding onto the past or wishing things were different. People who are resilient acknowledge what is and keep moving forward.  
  1. Learn. The most resilient people are always learning. You can learn from positive as well as negative outcomes. You can learn from peers, mentors, and friends. Spend time reflecting to see what behaviors or actions you can carry forward, and which you should adjust in the future.  

The only thing certain these days is change! Thus, one of the best things you can do for yourself, both personally and professionally, is develop your ability to be flexible and adapt, and to recover quickly and learn from your experience.  

To learn more about the principles of the PMBOK® Guide, watch my IPM Day Presentation, "Putting the PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition to Work", on November 4. You can learn more about the presentation and register here using the code DIONISO for $10 OFF.

Cyndi Adaptability and ResilienceAbout the Author

Cynthia (Cyndi) Snyder Dionisio is a professional project management author, consultant, and instructor. Ms. Dionisio provides consulting and training services for LinkedIn Learning, academia, government and private industry. An accomplished author and facilitator, she has written a dozen books on project management and trained thousands of project managers. Cyndi has been the Chair for three editions of the PMBOK® Guide. In 2009 she was awarded PMI’s Distinguished Contribution Award and in 2018 she was presented with the PMI Fellow Award.


“Cafeteria-Style” Project Management Comes of Age

By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.     |     Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL

I can still remember my early years in project management.

The company handed me a notebook described as project/program management. The notebook identified the life cycle phases, all of the activities to be accomplished in each life cycle phase, and the forms that had to be completed in each phase and presented to the customer. The notebook also described what the project managers could and could not do in the execution of their duties. No deviations were allowed from the notebook partly because the notebook was approved by our customers.

While some project managers considered themselves as the “president” of their project, they were still having to endure wearing handcuffs that limited their authority, their responsibility, and the decisions they could make.

Project management in the early years was driven by customers that were demanding that the contractors use project management. Contractors reluctantly agreed for sake of winning contracts but feared that, if the project managers were given too much freedom, the project managers would make decisions that were reserved for the senior levels of management.

The solution was simple: implement project management for the customer’s benefit and, at the same time, grossly limit what the project managers are allowed to do.

In some companies, project managers served as puppets with the strings being pulled by senior management. The notebooks were explained to the project managers as a necessity for standardization and control of projects, but the real intent was for executives to get better control of the project managers.

Today, the landscape for project management has changed because of the following:

  • Decades of project management practices have shown that it can work, and work well.
  • Project managers know their limitations as to what they can and cannot do.
  • Customers are demanding that project managers have the authority to make decisions rather than always having to get approval from senior management.
  • Senior managers now have significantly more trust in the ability of the project managers to make decisions and execute projects correctly.
  • The handcuffs have been removed from the project managers.
  • Customers (especially those external to the project manager’s company) want to see the projects they were paying for managed by a methodology that was more closely aligned with the customer’s business model than with the contractor’s business model.

The last bullet point opened the door for project management flexibility, a necessity for Agile and Scrum users. Flexible methodologies are most often referred to as frameworks. With a framework, rigid project management methodologies are broken down into a multitude of forms, guidelines, templates and checklists. All of the forms, guidelines, templates, and checklists are then placed on the shelves in a cafeteria. As the project manager goes through the cafeteria, he/she can then select those tools, and only those tools, that are necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular client.

Using cafeteria-style project management, customers will see their project more closely aligned to their business model and the project manager has the flexibility he/she needs to eliminate unnecessary project management waste and create a value-based deliverable.

Cafeteria-style project management is, in my opinion, a necessity for successful project management in an adaptive environment. The benefits of cafeteria-style project management have become quite apparent with Agile and Scrum users, and it is my belief that this approach will eventually become common practice in most industries.

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Dr.-Harold-Kerzner-200x300

Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks, most recently Project Management 2.0.