In safety-critical organisations such as civil-nuclear and aerospace, managing uncertainty is of particular importance as the consequences of failure can be potentially catastrophic. The challenge facing project managers in these complex, socio-technical environments is how to better understand the sources of project uncertainty and how to navigate a path through them in pursuit of successful project outcomes.
My Exploratory Study, just published in the International Journal of Project Management (Feb 2015), drew on interviews with project management practitioners from several large-scale projects in civil-nuclear and aerospace companies in the United Kingdom to identify four conceptual approaches that may be adopted by project managers to manage project uncertainty.
The first conceptual approach was a structural one: Continue reading Conceptual and practical approaches to managing project uncertainty
The purpose of this blog post is to define what is meant by the term safety- critical industry and to identify the tensions and trade-offs at play in these complex organisational settings in which my research is situated.
Falla defines safety-critical systems as ones “which need to possess the highest levels of safety integrity, where malfunction would lead to the most serious consequences” (Falla, 1997, p2). Wears describes safety-critical industries as “complex socio technical systems comprised of people in multiple roles and their societal and technical artifacts” (Wears, 2012, p4561). Combining these two definitions, a safety-critical industry can be said to be a system comprising individuals, technology and organisations in which safety is of paramount importance and where the consequences of failure or malfunction may be loss of life or serious injury, serious environmental damage, or harm to plant or property. A number of authors exemplify this broad definition of safety-critical industries by listing specific industry sectors which exhibit these characteristics. Commonly quoted examples of such industries are nuclear power plants, off-shore oil platforms, chemical plants, commercial aviation, and rail transport (Baron & Pate-Cornell, 1999; Amalberti, 2001; Kontogiannis, 2011; Wears, 2012). Continue reading Safety–critical industries: definitions, tensions and tradeoffs
One approach to understanding uncertainty in its most general sense is to consider some simple examples of uncertainty and use them to derive a general approach to managing uncertainty that can guide us in our daily lives. Let’s consider what the weather may have in store for us on a particular day – will it rain or will it brighten up? In the United Kingdom this is a particularly tricky uncertainty, and one that we need to deal with, if we are not to risk a soaking or to overheat in winter clothes should the sun emerge after a cool and cloudy start. And so if we are prudent we will check the weather forecast before we go out, and will take a decision on what preventative action to take, for example, carrying an umbrella or a sun hat, to minimize the consequences of the uncertainty. We will then get on with our day, all the time keeping a watchful eye on the weather to see if our plans for the day will need to change. This is a trivial example of uncertainty, where generally speaking the repercussions of error are not disastrous. Continue reading An intuitive model for how we manage project uncertainty:
Uncertainty: A concept that is rich, evocative and loaded with meaning. Uncertainty can conjure up fear and trepidation, or alert one to future opportunities to be explored, depending on the perspective taken. An entrepreneur may look favourably on uncertainties within a particular market from which he can exploit and profit. In contrast a middle manager may fear the consequences of an uncertain future generated by an organisational restructure. What is clear from these two examples is that “uncertainty” is neither a simple nor a neutral term. Continue reading Reflections on uncertainty
Imagine for a moment a safety-critical project – the building of a new nuclear power plant, the safe disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, the design and commissioning of a new gas turbine aircraft engine. These are all examples of projects that must be delivered predictably and safely. Yet these are complicated, multi-million pound endeavours which span several years and require the skilled efforts of many different professionals working across disparate organisations. The uncertainties inherent in these projects are legion and non-trivial. For example, what state will the radioactive waste that has been securely held in a storage canister really be in when we open it up for the first time in 40 years, or how do we design a submarine nuclear propulsion system that must be operational for 30 years with the bare minimum of maintenance access. The challenge facing individuals involved in these projects is to identify, make sense of, assess and act in the face of these uncertainties in a manner that minimises the impact on the delivery of the project. This is the scope of my PhD research, which I started in 2011 and aim to complete before the end of 2016. My goal is to shed light on how individuals – including but not limited to project managers – identify and make sense of these project uncertainties.
You can read about my research as it evolves under the My Publications tab in this blog
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