GPM First
Chapter 8 of The Single-Minded Project (978-1-4724-2996-4) by Martin Price

The Project’s Adaptation

Chapter 8
Responding Effectively to Circumstances That Change

Acting promptly and effectively to any call for redirection, correction or rework.


Refer to the Nine Crucial Capabilities



In deciding the best routes to make progress a project regime will wish to know the likely impact of the options available. However, the uncertainties and complexities of a project mean that the outcome of any choice is unlikely to be knowable at the time that it is decided. A project evolves from its many activity streams and their interactions. A regime must make their decisions whilst recognising this as an implicit risk.

A project is an expedition having few prescriptions on which to rely. Plans replace earlier plans; but for a regime giving close attention to its planning, its luck will grow. A project can usefully be regarded as ‘a network of commitments’, in which players striving to meet its interests and goals, endeavour to make the appropriate connections: usually their best assurance for maximising the pace of progress.

Project practitioners have to recognise that decisions are made within the context of current issues as they are then perceived. Choosing an action, its priority has to be based on the state of the project as it is then understood. Players need to be connected, curious, socially engaged, inventive and tenacious as well methodical and prudent with resources.

In navigating through a project’s uncertainties, risk management and adaptation are principal features of its management. This chapter includes a consideration of circumstances in which a project regime is required to work with a line-of-business organisation (for example with its host organisation). It argues that very many of a project’s challenges lie in a regime’s own back yard but nonetheless are the result of insufficient attention given to the external environment. The limitations of a strictly systematic approach are also recognised and addressed.

Two methods are described here to help facilitate adaptation. The first introduces a way of managing ‘Discovery and Redirection’ by mapping the practical issues involved in executing a project’s adaptation to unplanned events using what is labelled the ‘Tacking Cycle’. The second provides a set of ‘Adaptation Goals’ for ensuring that a project regime is well prepared for upcoming events that are likely to require a project’s adaptation. Collaboration software is considered at the end of the chapter.

A Regime’s Adaptation to Circumstances

A project is required to meet a unique set of requirements. As it develops, plans will be continually revised and a regime will periodically review their working arrangements and methods. When circumstances impose a more serious and immediate challenge, a project regime must be ready and able to quickly adapt itself. Unexpected constraints or opportunities can change the requirement and the way in which it is to be met. Like the project itself and its management, a regime has to evolve and develop through additions and adaptations to its own capabilities.

We cannot know how a project will develop: what will transpire, what will be learned and how this will affect later decisions. Whereas a business process may be assured by regular and reliable policy and procedures, such routines are not the ways of a project’s endeavour. The project’s purpose, its way of working and the uncertainties of the venture are unique in ways that are best understood by those closest to it. The challenge of managing a project’s execution lies principally in addressing and resolving a series of situations but it depends also upon prescribed methods and processes. They serve the venture but they do not direct it.

When a project regime is to work in partnership with a line-of-business organisation, managing the relationship will require vigilance and sensitivity. Care is needed when contrasting patterns of working practices when the communities are required to function in concert. Different routines and assumptions can easily bring confusion, disorder, disruption and mistrust.

What is to be done by a project regime and how it is to be done in collaboration with its host organisation requires agility. A line-of-business organisation is rarely accustomed to the irregularity and adaptation commonly experienced in managing a project. In such a partnership situation, the project regime is usually found to take the lead in securing the necessary collaboration and ‘acculturation’ (one organisation adapting to the culture of another). In the paper ‘Managing change across boundaries’, engagement with existing power relations, network dependence, improvisation and ‘manipulation’ of the context are examined (Balogun et al., 2005). In a project regime – as in a health regime or procurement regime – the way that it is conducted becomes customary, in contrast with the habits and traditions of others.

A project regime’s circumstances in responding to the unexpected can be seen as analogous to a footballer’s assessment of a ball coming towards them. Its speed and direction and the player’s movement relative to the pitch and the other players must determine their response. Many factors will influence the outcome. This contrasts with the experience of line-of-business processes where the analogy is more with the experience of a bowling alley. There it is the player’s assessment of the position of static pins and the way in which the ball can be thrown that is the challenge. The throw is carefully pre-meditated and the player makes their throw without the direct the involvement of the other players. The context is more constant and the active dynamics that come from the interaction with other players in a football match are absent.

Local Issues Can Be the Most Stubborn

A project is not a single coherent endeavour. It is a mixture of transactions, analysis, decisions and activities that need to be continually co-ordinated and adapted. A project plan is regularly subjected to interruption from what NASA terms ‘mid-course corrections’. These cause the project to realign and reset activities and intentions in response to events and rethinking as they occur. This is illustrated in the Tacking Cycle described in Figure 8.2.

Projects are exceptional both in the novelty and ambition of their agenda and in what is expected of players. In managing a project, they will sometimes be pushed beyond the limits of their own or their organisation’s capacity to perform. This book considers a project as a rollercoaster of human endeavour; the conduct of the regime being a project’s primary source of risk and opportunity. Systematic endeavour engages with active responses to issues that arise.

Risks can result in unexpected opportunities as well as uncertainty, hazard and constraint. They also show how the causes of project success need to be made visible and tangible before they can expect to be tamed and harnessed. Projects include the most difficult of mankind’s endeavours where solutions can be difficult to find. Rittel and Webber in ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ refer to ‘messes in which commitments have to be made based on insufficient or ambiguous information, which in turn leads to differing views on what ought to be done’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

Many project management endeavours turn out as a triumph. In others, factors perhaps beyond the control of the project regime or the sponsor result in difficulty and even failure. In many cases, disappointments can be attributed to shortcomings in its managing or leading. In these cases the project may well have been conducted using outdated practices; ignorant of ideas and capabilities deployed in other places. The project management community needs to be more closely connected; and for many practitioners and their organisations, a more complete and coherent understanding of the discipline is required.

The remarkably wide variety of projects today and the rich mix of expertise needed to sustain them, distinguish project management from other business activity. The discipline is deployed to develop a pharmaceutical drug; refurbish an underground railway system; transform a business organisation, a software program or an IT system or to launch a spacecraft. There are profound differences in the way that projects can be and are conducted and there are great challenges in all sectors and domains.

The life-cycle presents us with a sequence of distinct stages or ‘phases’; a structure that helps us to plan and assess progress and to know how and when to deploy method and other expertise. However the most challenging issues do not arise from methodology systems or technique. Most often, they stem from a project’s immediate neighbourhood: the sponsors, the context; stakeholders; the project regime; political forces; commercial or cultural issues relating to risk; the use of technology; the ability of players; errors; misjudgements; misunderstandings; oversight; personal ambition misplaced; a limited capacity for social engagement between players; disputes within a project regime; a disinclination to innovate and others.

A project regime has to be capable of interpreting events unemotionally and authentically. Players should be an assembly of the most informed and professional available; but as C.L.R. James, the West Indian cricket player and writer said, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ (James, 1963). Like the able cricketer, the able project professional has to be knowledgeable about matters beyond what others might regard as the boundaries of the discipline. They need also to be a student of human behaviour, everyday philosophy and political conduct, as well as the domains from which the project is derived and to which their project is delivering.

Projects Are What We Find Them To Be

How can we become more confident and capable to manage our projects successfully and what are the root causes of success and failure? Why is it that some project management functions are so much more successful than others? One reason for this is that projects have to be progressed through events that were unforeseen or unforeseeable; requiring plan changes sometimes amounting to a critical re-direction of its affairs. Many project regimes today lack confidence or autonomy; they stumble or hesitate and show themselves to be ill-equipped to adapt. The Nine Crucial Capabilities (Table P.1), with this book, provide an agenda for review and revisions to practices in deploying their collective intention.

Managing a project through planning and control is important, but players have also to continually adapt what is to be done and how it is to be done. And while it can be difficult to manage the choice of an adaptation to change course, its implementation can be at least as problematic.

A strictly logical analysis should prove useful for tracing the sequence of actions in an engineering mechanism. It is less useful when examining an endeavour that is reliant on human and organisational behaviour. The application of logic alone works well for diagnosing problems with motorcycles, diesel locomotives and aeroplanes, but these objects function only systematically. The behaviour of people and their organisations are, however, instinctive, irrational, creative and unpredictable.

If project management was a mechanical mechanism that accepted a requirement, made a whirring noise and then produced the deliverables as specified, life would be more straightforward. When it ceased to function, we could open it up, examine the mechanism, diagnose the cause of failure and fix it. Then, as we acquired a full understanding of the logic of the mechanism and its workings, we could then readily identify all its failure modes so that new users could quickly learn how this model of machine can fail and how to fix it.

In the functioning of such a systematic sequence, choices are few. All that happens is likely to have happened before and the machine’s functioning will always follow the same prescription. For a purely mechanical mechanism then, the way to achieve success, as well as to understand the modes of failure, can be readily prescribed.

Many accounts of project management practice indeed claim to rely on the supposition that all projects and project organisations function and are essentially conducted in the same way. Bodies of knowledge and other published standards promoted by project management institutions tend to be predicated in this way. This book recognises that such an approach will always have weaknesses; principally in the way that it neglects the need to respond to unexpected opportunities and constraints and the adaptation that then become required. These features make every project unique and dependent on a project regime’s resolve, curiosity, inventiveness, resolution, dialogue and organisation. A project is a venture that has to be planned but it cannot be predicted; because it is subject to some discovery and subsequent adaptation.

Redirection and the Tacking Cycle

After its initial scoping and shaping, a first plan will predict a linear development of the project’s progress over time. This is shown as a broken line in Figure 8.1 opposite.

Subsequent events will disturb this prediction of progress, when revisions to the requirement occur and resource constraints, fresh ideas, mistakes, errors, reworking and other interventions occur. When projects have high levels of uncertainty and complexity, events are likely to be significant and frequent. They are shown here as Tacking Points, where a project revision results in a re-routing that takes the project down a new path, on which the project is then to progress.

Figure 8.1 Discovery and Redirection


Source: 2012 © EngagementWorks Ltd.

In this representation of a project’s progression, the path from Tack 1 to Tack 2 the project is diverted by a misunderstanding. The path to Tack 3 is then taken in response to a competitor’s re-positioning in the market and when it is decided that an additional product is to be added. These are delivered At ‘Finish A’ and ‘Finish B’. At Tack 4, selected features of the second product are discontinued to bring the product to market earlier than was originally intended.

In undertaking projects having high levels of uncertainty and complexity, a project regime must regularly address and resolve these Tacking Points by following the Tacking Cycle.

Figure 8.2 The Tacking Cycle


Source: 2012 © EngagementWorks Ltd.

According to Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and War is a matter of expedients’. The same principle applies when managing a project and the Tacking Cycle carries us through the adaptation that may be needed to determine and validate a true course.

The cycle to be followed is shown in Figure 8.2. As any project Advances constraints, insights, barriers, objections, inappropriate planning assumptions, risks (up-side and down-side) and other factors emerge and become apparent for the first time. These Discoveries need to be properly understood and their significance shared and evaluated. If it is judged necessary to act upon what has been discovered by following a new path, Redirection will change either the goals to be achieved and/or the means of achieving them.

In practice the amount of time and effort devoted to exercising this cycle is often far greater than is realised. To exploit the potential of the Tacking Cycle, a project regime’s key players as a group, need to be able to explore the issues fully, decide on a course of action together and then make it happen. For this, they will need a robust Engagement Capability (see Chapter 4).

A Regime’s Adaptation Goals

Adaptation is a regular feature of managing a project. This pattern has to be regarded as normal, often to the chagrin of players. While a project regime cannot anticipate the events that call for Tacking, it needs to be ready to give a good account of itself when the need for re-planning occurs. The Tacking Cycle offers a guide to project players in the form of a logical scrutiny; to decide whether a mid-course correction is appropriate and if so, what the new direction should be.

A project regime’s readiness to adapt also depends on its readiness to reach a set of adaptation goals – in the same way that a regime’s capacity for social engagement depends on its capacity to realise its Engagement Goals (see Chapter 4). Adaptation Goals are shown in Figure 8.3 below, and these are developed further in the following pages.

Figure 8.3 A Regime’s Adaptation Goals


Source: 2012 © EngagementWorks Ltd.

Manage Pace

Maximising the pace of progress requires effective and efficient adaptation in response to events. Effective, in that cases for adaptation are well judged; efficient in that the methods used to advance the project are fit-for-purpose and implemented without delay. Early warning of an up-coming course correction should help players to comprehend the issues, expedite the adaptation and moderate the accompanying risks. A regime’s ‘connections’ (Chapter 4) will help to refine the choices available for the new plan and to enrich it.

Restate Requirement and Purpose

A project’s requirements and purpose often change and a regime needs to keep its players up-to-date with progress and issues. Sensitivity to opinion, concerns and promptings are important, as is the need for regime leaders to share information relating to current events. One-to-one visual management and personal presentations are often the most effective and appreciated means of broadcasting and enabling player’s insightful questioning.

Pursue Discovery

Players need at all times to listen and reflect; remembering actions and events and continually posing questions, as led by their curiosity and persistent scrutiny. This should enhance their understanding of issues and the likely consequences of imagined scenarios. Leaders need to be intent on gathering intelligence and opinion from other players.

Realign Responsively

The dialogue between leaders and their planning should be witnessed by other stakeholders; applying short-interval delivery cycles. Delay, whatever the cause, should be remedied assertively and responsibilities assigned to the lowest level possible. Autonomy and freedom of action, properly managed, should moderate procrastination and devolve professional experience in the regime.

Work in Co-Operation

Engagement and collaboration depend on resolve and candour. Every opportunity for players to be co-located/meet regularly/jointly problem-solve should be used. Leadership should be expected from every player: project management is a play of leadership. Negotiations should be conducted from positions of wide-ranging knowledge and clear purpose.

Accommodate Disorder

Responsibilities need to be assuredly assigned and supported; relying on connected autonomy. Strive to build trust. Apparent disorder can sometimes obscure that focused and committed effort is being conducted. Leadership should be encouraged to moderate behaviour in the organisation, using the principle of ‘loose-tight’ (see Chapter 9).

The Myth of Automated Collaboration

A proliferation of software tools and techniques is now claimed to sustain project management performance and reliability. They are systems that collect, collate and filter, record project data and distribute it, track progress and prompt actions that have been planned.

Numerous software tool suppliers promote ‘collaboration software’. But this is can be regarded as a contradiction of terms. To collaborate depends on resolve, dialogue and organisation, sensing, questioning, deciding and showing the way. The efficiency of these activities will in some ways depend on IT systems, but collaboration is essentially achieved through the project players’ behaviour and collective conduct. Information technology is an important resource to achieve efficiency, but it is not a primary requirement for decision-making. A recent advertisement reads as follows (the name ‘Acme’ has been used in place of the brand name):

By providing a 360-degree view of all workplace activities, Acme helps both team members and management alike to better understand and organise their work. As work is completed, team members can log time, provide updates, keep work progressing or complete tasks – ensuring your projects and left objectives get done. Acme empowers workers to contribute maximum value and gives executives visibility into all projects and other work, creating workplace harmony by enfranchising workers and informing executives.


The implication here is that to manage ‘all workplace activities’ of a project requires only that information is effectively initiated, managed and shared. But what of problem-solving; the learning from the project experience and emergent issues; the need for dialogue and to persuade, promote and work out how to incorporate new ideas and overcome difficulties? Surely these matters are germane to ‘creating workplace harmony by enfranchising workers and informing executives’. Acme cannot be offering the services that they claim, much beyond information processing and exchange. Acme themselves seem to be locked into the trap of the ‘paradigm paradox’, seeing project management as a set of prescribable working processes.

Here, Acme are offering an information technology (IT) solution to resolve an issue (collaboration) that requires the attention of project players who must share a variety of perspectives, knowledge, skills, opinion, interests and choices. These are factors that must be digested and in some way reconciled for a project to progress. Collaboration depends upon close rapport, engagement, negotiation, political sensitivity and resolve.

This story of ‘Acme’ might serve to illustrate to the reader how project management needs to be recognised as a social endeavour. In seeking a strong pace of progress and reliability, the emphasis of the work needs to focus on the human and organisational behaviour.

Professional Pointers

  • We cannot know with certainty of the outcome or consequences of decisions made today.

  • A project is an expedition that has few prescriptions on which to rely.

  • Projects are expeditions that evolve successfully through their adaptation.

  • Methodology and techniques serve project management; they do not direct it.

  • A project regime working in partnership with a ‘business as usual’ organisation requires care.

  • Many of a project’s challenges arise from local difficulties rather than from customer or user.

  • ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’

  • A plan is rarely a safe prediction of what will happen.

  • Collaboration can be aided by information systems but it cannot be conducted by this way.

  • Adaptation can be planned but nevertheless entirely depends on human skill and ingenuity.



[1] According to natural law theory, which holds that morality is a function of human nature and reason can discover valid moral principles by looking at the nature of humanity in society, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to natural law. Used in this way, natural law can be invoked to criticise decisions about the statutes, but less so to criticise the law itself. Some use natural law synonymously with natural justice or natural right (Wikipedia).

[2] Dynamic linking is a term derived from software design. A compiler automatically invokes the linker as the last step in compiling a program. The linker inserts code (or maps in shared libraries) to resolve program library references and/or combines object modules into executable code.



Balogun, J. et al. (2005). Managing change across boundaries: Boundary-shaking practices. British Journal of Management, 6(4): 261–78.


Hansen, M.T. (2009). Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.


James, C.L.R. (1963). Beyond a Boundary. London: Stanley Paul.


Rittel, H.W.J. and Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2): 155–69.

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