Proceedings of the 56th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2012, San Jose, CA, USA, 56th Annual Proceedings of ISSS

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Developing Resilience in Project Teams: A Path to Enabling Organizations for Thrivability

Mary C Edson



This paper relates to an ongoing systems research conversation, “Enabling organizations for thrivability: New perspectives on form, structure, and process in favor of human and societal prosperity.” It focuses on the question, “What could we possibly achieve if we co-create radical innovative patterns together, learning from other practitioners who are experienced in biology, technology, sociology, management, development, design, and ...?” Based on project team research viewed through a lens of complex adaptive systems and an adaptive model used in ecology, I will address “thrivability” in terms of collaboration, innovation, and learning. Specifically, my objective is to explore how project teams collaborate to co-create value as complex adaptive social systems in a multidisciplinary environment. In addition, innovation is explored as the impetus of creative destruction and its outcomes. Further, organizational resilience, specifically through development of adaptive capacity, is revealed as an outcome of learning through leveraging multidisciplinary experience.

When one “thrives”, it means one is “to grow vigorously (flourish), to gain in wealth or possessions (prosper), and to progress toward or realize a goal (succeed). It may be understood as a step beyond sustaining, which implies nourishment, support, preservation, and maintenance. Organizationally, thriving can mean expanding resources, expertise, productivity, and profitability. Beyond maintaining an operational model, our organizational objective, in this discussion, is not to merely sustain but thrive. In other words, humanistic values are not only the baseline for ethical decision making, but inform how an organization operates in time and space (i.e. daily, locally, and globally).

When goals are not specifically defined, but are questions of “what could we possibly achieve,” there is inherent risk in not knowing what to expect. A systems perspective can be valuable in defining systems boundaries - context, stakeholders, and impacts, through useful tools such as feedback. For example, the mission set out in the question of “what is possible” can be framed within a context of ethical and social responsibility, given the nature of the mission’s objectives. Such an open-ended mission is challenging, especially to project managers, who often have an aversion to committing to amorphous goals, much less in terms of co-creation of radical innovative patterns across disciplines. As a former project manager, I take a practical approach to most issues with which I am confronted. As a result, my question is, “In practical terms, how can we achieve this mission?”

One reason this mission is challenging per se, is that the introduction of “radical” ideas provokes resistance in most organizations, especially those that are change adverse. It also requires dialogue across disciplines for exploration of models that may provide insight into issues that have not traditionally embraced concepts outside the confines of one discipline. This requires impartiality to a practical application of theoretical pluralism for the purposes of learning different approaches to problem solving. It also requires establishment of trust in the process of emergence of new ideas, concepts, and models of design, problem solving, and delivery.

Research exploring the dynamics of group development and ecological adaptation has shown that resilient organizations encourage development of adaptive capacity. Practically, adaptive capacity is operational flexibility that allows for risk taking, questioning standard operating processes, and learning from experience. The lessons learned are then incorporated into future projects and reorganization of resources. Project leadership plays an essential role in shifting group norms and processes to promote adaptive capacity. Embracing change (incremental and transformational) and trust in the emergence of innovation are hallmarks of organizational resilience. Project teams that have developed adaptive capacity become leverage points as sources for organizational resilience and, subsequently, a path toward thrivability.

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