Effective strategies to move from change to resilience


Projects exist to bring about change in organizations. It is the project manager's role to bring about that change in a timely, cost-effective, high quality project—with a minimum amount of disruption to the business. When project plans change they seem to multiply geometrically, to the point of distraction. This paper will discuss how a different mindset can impact the culture of a project team. Project managers have a significant impact on building resilience in project teams. Moving from a change to resilience paradigm reframes our thinking about how to be effective during times of increasing change.

The purpose of this paper is to provide project managers with an understanding of how building resilience in your project team can increase the quality of business results and the effectiveness of the project team. Topics include discussing how you can develop a mindset and approach to build resilience into your team and the tools you can put to use immediately.


Human change in the workplace has been discussed in workshops across the globe for quite some time. If you are reading this, you may have already attended at least one change workshop. Yet I question how much better we are able to deal with change while we are in the midst of it. Part of the answer is that we all bring our own vision of the world to a team environment and we all navigate change differently. The question then becomes: How can project managers and team members co-create an environment where individual circumstances are addressed and the impact of change is reduced?

This paper shifts the focus from change and places it on the personal choices we can make to increase our resilience throughout the change process. The topics this paper will explore are:

  1. Change versus Transition
  2. Resilience
  3. Resilient Environments
  4. Competencies
  5. Managing for Resilience

Understanding change is important. Understanding how change impacts you and those around you, along with the knowledge and tools to do something about it is a challenge. Deciding to think about these topics differently is the first step toward being able to create an environment where resilience helps reduce the negative impact of change.

Change versus Transition

Projects are about creating and implementing change—this is what projects do. With respect to change, if the only issues project managers faced are related to implementing the outcomes of the project, then life would be pretty straightforward and the impact of change could be managed. When changes to the scope, resources/cost, schedule, and quality requirements begin to multiply, the impact is felt across the entire project and can seem unmanageable. Project team members often feel the pressure when the change impacts their personal deadlines, objectives, and activities, which happens on a regular basis. Transition is the process we all go through ‘individually’ to get back to our own equilibrium. During these times of transition resistance is often high, productivity slows, and morale slips.

Let's start by looking at the differences between change and transition:

  • Sudden/Unexpected
  • Managed
  • Concrete
  • Physical
  • Gradual
  • Soft/Amorphous
  • Emotional
  • Personal

Change is real; it can be measured, rationalized, and implemented. It is concrete and it usually happens whether we like it or not. Our personal and emotional responses to change often trigger resistance that (Woodward & Bucholz, 1989) is categorized into four different responses:

  • Disoriented – Feel loss and lost – What do I do next?
  • Disidentified – Takes away some of who you are – Where do I go now?
  • Disenchanted – It used to be so much better – How can they do this?
  • Disengaged – Nobody seems to care – Why should I bother?

These responses represent a typical thought process when change is happening, especially change that is unexpected and impacts work-life equilibrium negatively.

According to William Bridges (Bridges, 2001), transition refers to a three phase psychological process or common set of emotions we all go through when confronted with change. There are no sets measures on how long it should take for anyone to transition from the initial impact of the change to being mentally ready for the next challenge. Bridge's Model states the three stages he has studied—from letting go to new beginnings. Depending on the individual and the situation, transitions can be long or short.


• During the first phase, denial, anxiety, confusion … all fuel resistance. The first step anyone can take when moving through transitions is to “let go.”

• The Neutral Zone is characterized by frustration, still confusion and undirected energy. “Keep your head engaged” and look for opportunities.

• New beginnings start with exploration and anxiety. When you choose to move forward, “be willing to commit.

How project teams navigate through their transitions can have a positive effect on where a project is rated on the sliding scale between success and failure. Project teams who work in open, trusting and transparent environments tend to be more resilient when dealing with change and produce better results over time. So, how can you build resilience into a project team?


The dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (Merriam-Webster, 2012). Building resilience starts with understanding the personal choices we make when faced with change. How well do you cope with adversities associated with the change? When individuals are under the stress of change and “letting go” is not yet on the list, we tend to fall into three different categories of behavior: victim, survivor, or navigator. Although we all fall into each category at one time or another, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior around one more often than the others.

Do you see yourself as a:

  • Victim – Victims often perceive themselves as threatened by situations over which they have no control. They tend to complain, see everything as good or bad, and wait for the change to happen to them.
  • Survivor – Survivors believe that they are at the mercy of circumstances they cannot impact. Therefore, they hold on for dear life and become competitive, with the primary goal being self-protection.
  • Navigator – Navigators cultivate a belief in their ability to deal competently with situations. They have a good idea of where they want to go and are actively pursuing it. They prefer to act instead of being acted upon.

What are the personal choices you make when you are faced with change? If you had 100 points to distribute over the three categories of responses —Victim, Survivor, or Navigator —what percentage of your time would you spend in each one? Where do you go most often?

I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some of the behaviors navigators tend to exhibit as a start to building personal resilience. Navigators tend to exhibit significantly more resilience when faced with change and uncertainty.

  • Start by realizing that you cannot do this alone. The folly of the “Heroic Manager” has been well documented. Reach out to others for information, support, and resources. Ask people for help and offer what help you can provide. Go to people who can provide the specific support you are looking for and be precise about what you need. Be open to receiving and giving feedback.
  • Focus your attention and strategy on what you can control. The circle of influence and circle of concern (Covey, 2004) can help you discern where to focus your thinking. Your circle of concern is always there; you know what it is, but have no way to exert influence over it. Covey argues that you should leave the circle of concern to the side and spend time in your circle of influence, where you have a say and your voice is heard. Make your choices based on the logic of the situation.
  • Shift to empowering beliefs and look to refocus on what is possible. Empowering beliefs are positive thoughts and statements that expand your capacity to build resilience. Believe in your capacity to make a positive difference.
  • Take risks with a purpose — know the upside and downside of each risk. Use Risk Analysis, Scenario Planning, or simple “if then” statements to identify all of the potential issues and rewards. Then keep track of what you learned and how it was applied during the process. Take on risks and challenges that make you want to stretch.
  • Develop yourself in any way possible. Have an idea of where you want to go next and how you will start the process. For some people, it is important to have a well documented written plan; for others, developmental opportunities can be more flexible. The import thing is to do it. Answer the following three questions for yourself:
    1. What are my strengths?
    2. What are my interests?
    3. What are my passions?

In order to build an environment that fosters resilience in a project team, the project manager has to believe that this work is an important component to a successful project. Creating that environment takes discipline, planning, and inclusion in the project manager's day-to-day thought process. It is important to remember that “developing effective project teams is one of the primary responsibilities of the project manager.” (PMI, 2008, p. 229)

Resilient Environments

Resilient environments don't happen by accident. Managers have to make the choice to approach team effectiveness as an integral part of the team process, making sure that the team has the right skills to deliver results, is aligned on a clear purpose, with established ways-of-working and agreed upon norms of behavior around how they work together. Working relationships with these characteristics generally deliver higher performance results and work in an environment that is engaged and supportive.

Some of the key behaviors and characteristics these teams exhibit include:

  • Team members give and ask for honest, timely feedback.
  • Individual agendas are transparent to all
  • Conflict enhances the quality of team decisions
  • Responsibilities are clear
  • Accountability is owned

These are just a few of the behaviors highly engaged and resilient teams exhibit. Once a project manager has made the commitment, the next step is planning the process. This process takes place over time; it should become part of the team's daily dialogue. Think of it as a separate project and involve project team members from the beginning. Building a resilient environment is not all on the shoulders of the project manager. It is the responsibility of everyone on the project team, including the project manager. The project manager's responsibility is to model open and transparent behaviors and to facilitate the process of team growth. Project managers often work with internal or external organization effectiveness professionals who can provide guidance and coaching to help you develop a process and a plan of action that fits your style and situation. Collect stakeholder requirements from the project team and focus on the idea of the project manager's job really being “Manager of Expectations” and remember, everything you do, or don't do, sets an expectation for future behavior (Baker, 2006).

Here are three tools to help start the process:

The Team Effectiveness Snapshot is a tool I developed in 2004 to help client teams define their own expectations with respect to performance and working environment. When the team defines the behaviors they expect to see, you lay the groundwork for clear responsibilities and owned accountabilities. Begin by separating Performance (how well we deliver the bottom line) and Environment (how well we function as a team to maximize Performance). Pull the team together in whatever way you can and ask the team to define measurable behaviors for each of the Performance and Environment measures. What does each measure look like for this team on this project? Get your entire team involved. The conversation generated in the process helps shape better working relationships among team members.

Ask the team to plot where they think they are today. Is their perception the same or different from yours and what do you do? Then have team members plot where they would like to be.

Performance:      1.   Unacceptable   2.   Poor    3.   Average          4.   Good            5.   Excellent          6.   Outstanding

Environment:      1.   Dysfunctional    2.   Tense  3.   Uncooperative 4.   Cooperative  5.   Supportive       6.   Engaged


This is the actual Snapshot is of an executive team I had the opportunity to work with. They were running a successful business and felt they were doing okay when it came to performance. However, as the right side of the graph shows, there was a lot of stress in the environment. After finding out where the stress was coming from, the question I asked was what they thought would happen to their performance if they were to put the work in to improving their working environment. That was a starting point for this team. Use the Snapshot as a way to have your team self-assess and continue the dialogue around the team's expectations and accountabilities.

Understanding preferences and style is a way to give team members an opportunity to learn about each other's preference working style early on in the process. This is where tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, the Golden Personality Type Profiler, Insights®, DISC®, and so forth give individuals a chance to get to know each other on different levels. Note here that many of these tools should be administered and presented by someone who has been certified in the specific instrument.

Where type and preference surveys measure personality, the Johari Window offers a way of looking at how personality is expressed. The model is based on I what we know about ourselves and what others know about us. How willing am I to listen to and internalize feedback? Do I disclose too much about myself to others or should I disclose more? The Johari Window offers a reason for you to know yourself a little better by being more open to feedback and to let others know more about who you really are. Open up and expand the Public Area (Q1: Known to me and others) through a regular and honest exchange of feedback, and a willingness to disclose personal feelings (Chimaera Consulting, 1999). One exercise that has worked with teams is to have each member draw a four-grid box with the windows representing a self-assessment, have him or her present it to the team, and ask team members for feedback.


1.   This is what we choose to share with others. It is the Public Area where we are comfortable sharing and talking about ourselves.

2.   The Hidden Area includes those things others believe to be true about us and we are not aware of.

3.   The Unknown Area is just that. Something about us that no one knows about. These are the opportunities for more self-awareness.

4.   This is the Private Area, where we keep certain aspects of our lives to ourselves and hidden from others.

Some questions you may want to think about when you are planning:

What behaviors do I need to model? What can I do? Where do I need help?

In order to build an environment that fosters resilience in a project team, the project manager has to believe that this work is an important component to a successful project. Creating that environment takes discipline, planning, and inclusion in the project manager's day-to-day thought process.


Competencies have been defined as characteristics that include, technical skills, behavioral skills, personal attributes and attitudes. These characteristics, when combined, result in better performance. When competencies are agreed upon and definitions assigned, managers can measure levels of competence and plan accordingly to help build those competencies within the team. For the purpose of building resilience into a working environment, I believe that project managers need to be competent in four specific areas:

  1. Critical Thinking gives you the ability to think rationally, without emotion.
  2. Being OK with Ambiguity gives you the freedom to try.
  3. Empathy helps you learn what others are experiencing.
  4. Courage is the fear of being vulnerable and going on anyway.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking (CT) can be defined as the ability to think clearly and logically in a fair and accurate manner focusing only on information that is relevant. CT has been referred to as the one competency that enables mastery of all other competencies. Critical thinking is applied across workplace skills including, decision making, problem solving, strategic thinking, and organizing/planning. I would expect that project managers be expected to think critically about all aspects of a project. In the context of building relationships with team members, using critical thinking skills can increase levels of trust by forcing individuals to take emotions into account and out of discussions and decisions. Pearson Education, Inc. and TalentLens developed the model below to simplify the critical thinking thought process.


1.  Recognize Assumptions – acknowledge your values, the agenda you bring and the relevant information you have in hand.

2.  Evaluate Arguments – be transparent about your assumptions and invite diverse points of view.

3.  Draw Conclusions – agree on a course of action and move forward.

  1. Do you recognize assumptions in one-on-one conversations? Are you willing to accept your own assumptions when dealing with others?
  2. Are you willing to seek out diverse thoughts? Are you open?
  3. Do you draw conclusions that follow logically from the available evidence?

Practice critical thinking on a day-to-day basis and on large-scale and small-scale issues. Think RED and ask the project team to think RED as well.

Being OK with Ambiguity

This topic is often referred to as an individual's ability to deal with the ambiguity that comes when schedules change, systems and processes fail, and pressure builds. The competency measures ability on a scale, from locked into the present/inflexible to spontaneous/flexible and looking ahead. We all live somewhere along that scale. Some individuals like to leave things loose and open to change and feel energized by last-minute pressures; others perform better in more structured, fixed environments. Give team members the chance to know how each handles uncertainty. An exercise you could use in a team meeting would be to ask each team member to present where he or she sees himself or herself on the scale and why; then, let team members provide feedback to each other.

Look for opportunities to “let go.” Practice the RED thought process, put your emotions on the side temporarily, and look at situations objectively. Adaptability is not about “duck and weave”; it is about responding to circumstances in a calm, intelligent manner, and making the best possible choice based upon the relevant information you have available.


Empathy is learned during the continuous learning processes of feedback and self-disclosure (see Johari Window). It is what has been called peeling back another layer of the onion or taking a relationship to a new level. We have talked about the value of using models like the Johari Window to learn more about what makes each team member an individual. When teams continue to explore their working relationships, the ability to understand each other's needs from their perspective makes it easier to practice the competency of empathy. You have mastered the competency of empathy when you can sense what another person is feeling and what it feels like for him or her. The Dalai Lama (2001) stated, “In the first step toward a compassionate heart, we must develop our empathy or closeness to others.” He is talking about showing concern for another's well-being and understanding the situation from his or her perspective. Build stronger working relationships by making the effort to try and walk in another person's shoes.

Active listening is the skill most associated with helping develop empathy. When in a conversation, be involved; ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Here are a few tips and reminders on how to listen actively.

  • Paraphrase – summarize back what you just heard.
    • “Let me see if I have this right, I heard you say…”
  • Clarify – ask for further comments to clarify what was meant.
    • “Can you say more about that…”
  • Mirror – reflect back what you see behind the words.
    • “That must have upset you…”
  • Body Language – be open, make eye contact, and show interest.


Courage is feeling the anxiety and fear of taking a course of action and following through with it anyway. Taking on the commitment to build as much resilience into your project team as you can takes courage. This paper has focused on the interpersonal side of developing your project teams because of the proven returns you can net, yet A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) mentions interpersonal skills only four times. It is common for project managers to view team development as another box that needs to be checked. There is never enough time. We can't get calendars coordinated. We're a virtual team. These are some of the obstacles facing teams. Remember the behaviors and skills navigators tend to exhibit. The first behavior on the list is realizing that you should not do this alone. Find someone who can provide you with support and guidance throughout the process. In the Bridges Transition Model, new beginnings start with exploration and anxiety. When you choose to move forward, “be willing to commit” (Bridges, 2001).

Managing for Resilience

Most organizations have a structured Performance Management Process that is administered on a regular cycle. The event takes place usually once or twice each year and includes formal performance evaluations, development plans, and objectives. It is a time-consuming process that places a lot of stress on the project manager and the team.

Here's a different thought process — Teams that develop good working relationships and an open, transparent working environment can limit the impact of the stress. As a manager, you are responsible for executing the company policy. As a leader, you are responsible for providing regular feedback to everyone on the team so no one is ever surprised by a written performance, and the process raises levels of performance across the entire team. You can start by viewing performance management as a continuous improvement process. Performance management can be a helpful tool to help build resilience when managers include a few useful approaches in their day-to-day thought process.

Planning Performance Metrics – Objective Setting: Align strategies, expectations and metrics with the goals of the business. Create clear measurable metrics and manage expectations. Managing performance metrics that are clear in terms of deliverables and shared responsibilities help you provide context for the important work of coaching and feedback. Identify shared roles and be clear about what you can provide to help team members implement their own development plans. You are a “Manager of Expectations” (Baker, 2006). Revisit and revise expectations regularly, but especially when major changes happen. How many times have you been frustrated and concerned about an upcoming performance review when the objectives that were written six months ago are no longer valid? Build resilience in your team by acknowledging that metrics have changed, asking individuals to update their respective objectives. Being OK with Ambiguity is a competency. Finding ways to eliminate unproductive uncertainty is a crossover point between management and leadership.

Leader/Manager – Performance and Environment: There is always the expectation of leadership placed on project managers, yet project management is a discipline that requires preparation to take and pass an examination that gives you the title of Project Management Professional (PMP)®. This is necessary to provide standardized documentation and identified common best practices. “However, requirements to harmonize have their downside: the greater number of people we attempt to serve with the same processes, the further we may get away from being able to truly deliver on specific requirements of our customers.” (Bull, 2011). When you view the individuals on your team as customers with specific requirements, you begin to see your environment as a leader. Start by being a good coach. Put people in places where they have the best chance to succeed. Use the tools and models presented here to help you identify your leadership style; have someone coach you, if necessary, and commit to looking for opportunities that build positive working relationships in your project teams.

Good performance management builds trust, opens clear lines of communication, establishes accountabilities, provides context for coaching and feedback and builds professional relationships. Use the performance management forms as tools to document performance and feedback. Performance management takes discipline, planning, and inclusion in the project manager's day-to-day thought process.


Project management attempts to organize and structure the design and implementation of change. This paper looked at ways to minimize the impact of change by building resilient behaviors and characteristics into the team. Project managers have a choice. How do I choose to manage/lead my project team?


Baker, E. (2006). It's all about ME (managing expectations)! PMI® Global Congress 2006—North America, Seattle, WA.

Bridges, W. (2001). The way of transition: Embracing life's most difficult moments. Perseus Publishing: New York.

Bull, R. C. (2011). Moving from project management to project leadership: Breaking the mold and leading a project. PMI® Global Congress 2011—North America, Dallas, TX.

Chimaera Consulting (1999). “Famous Models - Johari Widow.” Chimeara Consulting Ltd. Retrieved from <http://www.chimaeraconsulting.com/johari.htm>.

Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lama, D. (2001). An open heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Merriam-Webster (2012), resilience (2). 2012, Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/resilience.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Woodward H., & Bucholz, S. (1989). Aftershock: Helping people through corporate change. Wilson Learning Corporation.

© 2012, Vincent Arecchi
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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