Organisational resilience with mindfulness

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Developed by Søren Falk Thomsen

Mindfulness is a term introduced by the professors Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe after studying high reliability organizations (HRO). These organizations have no choice but to function reliable. Weick and Sutcliffe [1] found that reliability does not mean a complete lack of variation. It is just the opposite. It takes mindful variety to assure stable high performance. The learnings and techniques from the HRO’s can be implemented in projects and in organizations who want a higher reliability.

Figure 1: US Navy carrier example of an HRO



In brief, mindfulness involves the ability to detect important aspects of the context and take timely, appropriate action. A well-developed capability for mindfulness catches the unexpected earlier when it is smaller, comprehends its potential importance despite the small size of the disruption, and removes, contains or rebounds from the effects of the unexpected. Managing the unexpected, mindful project managers and organizations are able to reliably deliver the task they were asked to do.

The expectations of individuals tend not to correspond with the reality. We are all affected by cognitive biases and the mindful project manager is aware of that.

Mindfulness VS Mindlessness

To underline the importance of mindfulness its counterpart mindlessness is described. Mindlessness is characterized by at style of mental functioning in which people follow recipes, impose old categories to classify what they see, act with some rigidity, operate on automatic pilot, and mislabel unfamiliar new contexts as familiar old ones [1]


An increasing demand for resilience within sociotechnical systems has led to several managerial concepts preparing organisations and their project, program and portfolio managers for unexpected events. The awareness of resilience and antifragility is crucial for HRO’s, but all organisations can learn from the mind-set of the HRO’s. Even organisations without risks of casualties can improve their practices with mindfulness. It is a matter of context. Once the context, the precautions, the assumptions, the focus of attention is ignored, it becomes obvious that many organizations are just as exposed to the unexpected as HRO’s and just as much in need of mindfulness. E.g an unexpected shutdown at an assembly line is not a severe crisis. However the supervisor did not expect any fails or shutdowns. To him it is an unexpected crisis. Unexpected events occur at all organizational levels.

Project, Program and Portfolio managers are familiar with many project management tools and they are able to define project time, costs, risks, stakeholders etc. by PMI standards. However, when projects become more complex e.g. in order of technical and organisational complexity, social intricacy of human behavior or uncertainty of long lifecycles, standard tools becomes inadequate. We tend to think of ourselves as rational beings, but in fact subconscious processes often drive human behavior. Not being aware of these subconscious thought processes can adversely affect projects. Mindful project managers know that they do not know everything. They know that their thoughts and impressions are affected by cognitive biases. Thus, they must be aware of their irrationalities to act in a mindful manner and become rational and fact-based. Mindfulness is instrumental in managing the intersection between human behavior and uncertainties thus generating processes within projects, programs and portfolios that are more reliable.


Weick and Sutcliffe[1] have developed five principles that harness the key characteristics in mindfulness. These guidelines/principles apply upward to divisions and organizations as well as downward to teams, crews and team leaders. The principles can be adopted by anyone. Each principle is given an example from different HRO’s.

Principle Description Example(s)
Preoccupation with failure A preoccupation with failure focuses the organization to convert small errors and failures into organizational learnings and improvements.

“Pay close attention to weak signals of failure that may be symptoms of larger problems within the system” [1]

Be wary of the potential liabilities of successes such as complacency, the temptation to reduce margins of safety and drift into automatic processes.

Read also Early warning signals in project management

The airline industry encourage their personnel to report all failures and near misses generating failure catalogs. A big effort is expended in reviewing all reports to improve processes and workarounds.
Reluctance to simplify Simplify mindfully and reluctantly. Have in mind that simplification can become too simple resulting in useless, unprecise simplifications e.g. explanations and categories. Problems faced in complex projects typically offer several options and a nuanced picture to fully understand the best solution. A merger of two North American railroad companies in 1996 resulted in a gridlock of the system from North Platte, Nebraska to Chicago. Many small errors and failures occurred after the merger, but the most obvious reason for the gridlock was an ignorant and arrogant attitude toward innovative and complex solutions. The top management insisted on doing like they always had done, where trains are made up in central locations called classification yards, not in dispersed locations called shipper yards, satellite yards or mainline tracks. Freight shipped by railroaders are shipped by rail, not trucks. They insisted even though the merged rail company had successful experiences with innovative solutions. In this case the problems caused by these traditional simplifications were overlooked until the central location or excessive grain shipments became a bottleneck causing the gridlock.
Sensitivity to operations An organization must have an integrated overall and aligned picture of operation. Sensitivity to operations is closely related to sensitivity to relationships. Meaning a clear and unprejudiced communication between operation and management is crucial to understand the big picture.

Furthermore, it is important to be responsive to the changing reality of projects. This can be obtained first by controlling the progress, monitor deviations and implication on projects, and second being mindful to potential unexpected events.

1: Studies of nuclear weapons suggest that many problems arise not from a single failure, but when small deviations in different operational areas combine to create conditions that were never imagined in the plans and designs[2]

2: The microcomputer industry can be characterized as a high velocity environment with a rapid and discontinuous change in demand, competitors, technology and inaccurate, unavailable or obsolete information. Decision-makers deal with this environment by paying close attention to real-time information e.g. concerning current operations or environments.

Commitment to resilience Accommodate unexpected events and react to them quickly as they arise.

Resilience involves (a) the ability to absorb strain and preserve the functioning of the project; (b) ability to recover quickly; (c) ability to learn from the unexpected event and how it impacted the project.[3].

In the North American railroad merger case the meltdown of operations showed an inability to bounce back when the initial problems occurred. The railroad were short of men right after the merger and they had trimmed crews, locomotives and supervisors shortly before the gridlock from Nebraska to Chicago. Slack resources is a common way to create resilience.
Deference to expertise (Collective mindfulness) Deference to expertise is about involving experts in the decision-making. The experts actively involved in the projects are more capable to give articulate solutions to problems. Rigid hierarchies have their own special vulnerability to error where errors at high levels tend to pick up and combine errors at low levels. HRO’s push decision making down where decision is made on the front line. The authority migrate to the people with the most expertise, regardless of their rank.

Collective mindfulness is associated with cultures and structures that promote open discussions of errors, mistakes and awareness.

In the North American railroad merger case the decisions were made from top management even though their operational expertise were outdated. Furthermore the management were only fed with information that they wanted to hear. A horrible paradigm where management were fed with biased information and insisted to make decisions at top level. This classic command-and-control bureaucracy is adequate for a stable situation but too inflexible in times of change.

The five principles are exemplified within the context of an US Navy carrier here.

Topics in Mindfulness

Figure 2: Circle of influence

The five principles are general guidelines of mindfulness. However, they have to be converted into processes and mind-sets at organizations or within projects. To be able to implement mindfulness as a manager you must be aware of your cognitive behaviour as a human including how you experience the world. Weick and Sutcliffe describe the cognitive topics of expectations, categorization and the unexpected. These topics are briefly introduced. For further insight, please go to original literature[1] [4]. Mahatma Gandhi said: "Start changing yourself if you want to change the world around you". The same goes for a project manager. Figure 2 suggest a manager must understand and live out mindfulness before he can influence his employees and network.


An expectation is to envision something, that is reasonably certain to come true. To expect something is to be mentally ready for it. “ Expectations form the basis for virtually all deliberate action because expectancies about how the world operates serve as implicit assumptions that guide behavioural choices” [5]. With that in mind, it is important to be mindful about your expectations. Expectations direct your attention to certain features or events, which means that they affect what you notice and remember. Whenever our expectations does not match with reality our minds adjust our expectations to reality. It can be compared with a hypothesis-test. The human mind search for confirmation of its expectations but is biased to avoid looking for evidence that disconfirm them. HRO’s work hard to counteract this tendency. They routinely suspect their expectations for being incomplete. With this process, they check if the normal accepted expectation still pass the hypothesis test.

The capability for mindfulness (Categories)

Whenever people change the way they perceive the world they essentially rework the way they label and categorize what they see. This change in perception can be described with the following process:

  1. Re-examine discarded information
  2. Monitor how categories affect expectations and,
  3. Remove out-dated distinctions

Firstly, to rework one’s categories mindfully implies to evaluate how much information is discarded with a categorization of an instance with similar characteristics. Generally categorization help gaining control in a fast pace world. Categories can predict what will happen and plan one’s own actions. Without categories, any person or situation would be unique and therefore conserve scarce mental resources of attention and thinking. To exemplify categorization a university professor meet hundreds of students each day and have to categorize different types of students. The professor could categorize the students into categories such as active/passive, introvert/extrovert, Intelligent/less intelligent, man/women, young/old etc. The categories guide the professor how (s)he should behave or treat the different students. One category cannot describe all facets of a person and the professor must be aware of the discarded information within each category.

Secondly, mindful reworking of categories also mean that one pay close attention to their effect on the expectations. Categories and expectations are closely related. E.g., a person categorized as an expert is expected to know the answers within his/her field of expertise. These expectations constantly have to be revised and evaluated. It may be necessary to differentiate the expectations, replace them, supplement them, or discard the whole category.

Third, mindful reworking means a check whether the categories remain plausible. Outdated categorization with implausible distinctions of expectations ensure trouble. This is the basic misreading in HRO’s. The trouble starts when you fail to notice that you only look for whatever confirms your categories and expectations. “Believing is seeing. You see what you expect to see. You see what you have the labels to see. You see what you have the skills to manage.” [1] People who persistently rework their categories and refine them, differentiate them, update them, and replace them notice more and catch unexpected events earlier in their development. That is the essence of mindfulness [1].

The Unexpected

Unexpected events can be categorized in three forms [4]: The unexpected occur when an event that was

  • expected to happen fail to occur.
  • not expected to happen does happen.
  • simply unthought-of happens (Unknown/unkowns)

Unexpected events are caused by faulty expectations and the fact that we sought to look for evidence that confirm our expectations. These confirmations are found to boost our experience of being in control. However, this confirming behavior has adverse effect on how quick we realize we are wrong and rework our expectations. A slow realization time allows problems to worsen and become harder to solve and they might even be entangled with other problems. HRO’s strive to minimize the risk that unthought-of events happen by steering people towards mindful practices that encourage imagination. People inadvertently trivialize the importance of imagination. Instead people tend to “Expect the unexpected” to maintain their desire for control and predictability.

Putting Mindfulness into Practice as a Project, Program and Portfolio Manager

Putting Mindfulness into practice as a Project, Program and Portfolio Manager [1] have developed concrete processes based on the five principles and on practices identified in the best HRO’s. The processes is organised under two headings. “Enhancing awareness and anticipation” concerning the three first principles, involving failure, simplification and operations. “Containment of those unexpected events that occur” concerning the last two principles involving resilience and expertise.

Enhancing awareness and anticipation Enhancing containment
  • Preserve a balance of values
  • Restate your goals in the form of mistakes that must not occur
  • Remember that mindfulness takes effort
  • Create Awareness of vulnerability
  • Cultivate humility
  • Be glad when you are having a bad day
  • Create an error friendly learning culture
  • Encourage alternative frames of reference
  • Strengthen fantasy as a tool
  • Speak up! Just because you see something, do not assume that someone else sees it, too.
  • Put a premium on interpersonal skills
  • Surface unique knowledge
  • Be careful when you label something a fact
  • Develop skeptics
  • Be suspicious of good news
  • Seek out bad news
  • Test your expectations
  • Welcome uncertainty
  • Treat all unexpected events as information, and share this information widely
  • Transform close calls into near misses
  • Specify the burden of proof
  • Adopt complex models because they direct attention to more details and register more facets of context.
  • Revise existing models as well as existing practices
  • Carry your expectations lightly
  • Reward contact with the frontline
  • Clarify what constitutes good news
  • Frame mindfulness in novel ways
  • Remember that ambivalence builds resilience
  • Use rich media and encourage people to listen
  • Be mindful publicly
  • Enlarge competencies and response repertoires
  • Build excess capacity. Don’t overdo lean, mean ideals
  • Create flexible decision structure
  • Accelerate feedback
  • Balance centralization with decentralization
  • Reinforce perishable values
  • Mitigate complacency

Read How to create a positive culture around failure in project management here.


It is important to underline that mindfulness is not a tool – Mindfulness is a mind-set, a management theory. Thus, there is no recipe on how to implement mindfulness in projects, programs, portfolios or in organizations. The processes listed above can serve as inspiration, but have to be adjusted to fit into the context of organization and employees.

Mindfulness is a complex management theory. As the principle “Reluctance to simplify” justify, it takes a complex idea to capture a complex phenomenon. To fully implement mindfulness and deal with the unexpected it is required to organize in a complex manner. Likewise mindfulness preach a need for complex set of ideas to understand what people are doing and why it works thus requiring workers with a certain level of receptivity and resources.

Analyzing the mindfulness theory described by Weick and Sutcliffe there is one shortfall. Weick and Sutcliffe[1]. argue that human cognition in the mindfulness theory is the solution to reliability problems, but they tend to over-simplify the resilience concept by neglecting the importance of routine-based reliability. Studies of human systems reveal two strategies for achieving reliable performance shown in Figure 3 [6]:

Figure 3: Strategies for achieving reliable performance[6]
  • Routine-based reliability
  • Mindfulness-based reliability

Organizationally, routine-based reliability involves the creation and execution of standard operating and decision-making procedures, which may be unique to the organization or widely accepted across an industry [7]. The routine-based reliability strategy rely on predefined procedures, routines and training designed to decrease cognitive human problem solving, to reduce errors, unwanted variation and waste. Defining procedures etc. is a frontloaded process where unknown/unknowns(See Johari Window) may oppose a major risk because unexpected events cannot be implemented into the procedures. While routine-based approaches focus on reducing or eliminating situated human cognition as the cause of errors, mindfulness-based approaches focus on promoting highly situated human cognition as the solution to individual and organisational reliability problems [1]. Mindfulness focus on one of the two strategies and ignore or assume that optimal routines, procedures and structures are in place. Mindfulness does not describe the interdependencies and synergistic impacts between the two strategies.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. 2001. Managing the unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0787956279
    Weick and Sutcliffe have studied HRO’s that have developed a way of acting with unexpected events. The processes of the HRO’s have been mapped and provide a template for all organizations that want to be more reliable in managing the unexpected. The principles and mindset behind the HRO’s is introduced as mindfulness. The authors define mindfulness as a management theory with real life examples from US Navy carriers, nuclear power plants and railway companies.
  2. Sagan S.D. 1993. The limits of safety: Organizations Accidents and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University.
    Sagan started his research with the belief that an accidental nuclear explosion was very low and he came to a completely different conclusion.
  3. Oehmen, J. et al. 2015. Complexity Management for Projects, Programmes, and Portfolios: An Engineering Systems Perspective. Copenhagen: PMI
    Oehmen et al discuss complexity, how it impacts projects, programmes and portfolios and what we can do about it. This white paper connect abstract concepts and management approaches to concrete practical examples. Introducing cutting edge tools and strategies such as network analysis, system dynamics, modularization, antifragtility and mindfulness.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. 2007. Managing the unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 9780787996499
    Weick and Sutcliffe have updated their first edition “Managing the unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity”. The mindfulness theory and principles have been specified further with new case studies etc.
  5. Olson, J. M. et al. Expectancies. In Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles, edited by E.T. Higgins & A.W. Kruglanski, pp211-238. New York, NY: Guilford.
    Olson et al explains the form and function of expectancies in humans. Some of the key properties of expectancies is identified that influence both how expectancies operate and their likely consequences. Finally a simple model of expectancy processes is developed, based on the authors review of how expectancies operate.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Butler, B. S., & Gray, P. H. 2006. Reliability, mindfulness, and information systems. Mis Quarterly, 30(2), pp.211–224
    Butler and Gray examine the concept of mindfulness as a theoretical foundation for explaining efforts to achieve individual and organizational reliability in the face of complex technologies and surprising environments.
  7. Spender, J. C. 1989. Industry recipes: An Enquiry into the Nature and Sources of Managerial Judgement. Oxorfd, UK: Basil Blackwell.

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