Traditional approaches to project management emphasize long-term planning and a focus on stability to manage risk. But today, managers leading complex projects often combine traditional and “agile” methods to give them more flexibility — and better results.

In today’s dynamic and competitive world, a project manager’s key challenge is coping with frequent unexpected events. Despite meticulous planning and risk-management processes, a project manager may encounter, on a near-daily basis, such events as the failure of workers to show up at a site, the bankruptcy of a key vendor, a contradiction in the guidelines provided by two engineering consultants or changes in customers’ requirements.1 Such events can be classified according to their level of predictability as follows: events that were anticipated but whose impacts were much stronger than expected; events that could not have been predicted; and events that could have been predicted but were not. All three types of events can become problems that need to be addressed by the project manager. The objective of this article is to describe how successful project managers cope with this challenge.2

Coping with frequent unexpected events requires an organizational culture that allows the project manager to exercise a great amount of flexibility. Here are two examples of advanced organizations that took steps to modify their cultures accordingly.

A group of 23 project managers who had come from all over NASA to participate in an advanced project management course declared mutiny. They left the class in the middle of the course, claiming that the course text, based on NASA’s standard procedures, was too restrictive for their projects and that they needed more flexibility. With the blessing of NASA’s top leadership, the class members then spent four months conducting interviews at companies outside of NASA. This led to a rewriting of numerous NASA procedures. Among other things, NASA headquarters accepted the group’s recommendation to give NASA project managers the freedom to tailor NASA’s standard procedures to the unique needs of their projects. A similar movement to enhance project managers’ flexibility occurred at Procter & Gamble, where the number of procedures for capital projects was reduced from 18 technical standards and 32 standard operating procedures to four technical standards and four standard operating procedures.


1. Geraldi et al. concluded: “No matter how good risk management processes are, projects will invariably face unexpected events. … Front-end thinking alone is not going to be enough to develop successful projects.” See J.G. Geraldi, L. Lee-Kelley and E. Kutsch, “The Titanic Sunk, So What? Project Manager Response to Unexpected Events,” International Journal of Project Management 28, no. 6 (August 2010): 547-558. See also I. Holmberg and M. Tyrstrup, “Managerial Leadership as Event-Driven Improvisation,” chap. 3 in “The Work of Managers: Towards a Practice Theory of Management,” ed. S. Tengblad (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012); A. Söderholm, “Project Management of Unexpected Events,” International Journal of Project Management 26, no. 1 (January 2008): 80-86; M. Hällgren and E. Maaninen-Olsson, “Deviations and the Breakdown of Project Management Principles,” International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 2, no. 1 (2009): 53-69; and K. Aaltonen, J. Kujala, P. Lehtonen and I. Ruuska, “A Stakeholder Network Perspective on Unexpected Events and Their Management in International Projects,” International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 3, no. 4 (2010): 564-588.

2. S. Piperca and S. Floricel, “A Typology of Unexpected Events in Complex Projects,” International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 5, no. 2 (2012): 248-265.

3. For examples of the poor statistics of project results, see T. Williams, “Assessing and Moving on From the Dominant Project Management Discourse in the Light of Project Overruns,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 52, no. 4 (November 2005): 497-508; and B. Flyvbjerg, M.K. Skamris Holm and S.L. Buhl, “How Common and How Large Are Cost Overruns in Transport Infrastructure Projects?” Transport Reviews 23, no. 1 (2003): 71-88.

4. B. Boehm and R. Turner, “Balancing Agility and Discipline: A Guide for the Perplexed” (Boston, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 2004).

5. Tengblad, “The Work of Managers,” 348-350; and A. Styhre, “Leadership as Muddling Through: Site Managers in the Construction Industry,” in Tengblad, “The Work of Managers,” chap. 7.

6. T. Flores, “Earthly Considerations on Mars,” Ask Magazine 51 (summer 2003): 5-8.

7. J. Watzin, “Response #2,” in “WIRE Case Study,” NASA Academy of Program and Project Leadership, 12; also, Geraldi et al. studied the way 22 project managers responded to unexpected events and found that “the heart of successful responses … lies with people assets.” Geraldi et al., “The Titanic Sunk, So What?”

8. For the idea that building trust requires deliberate and careful choice, see R.C. Solomon and F. Flores, “Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life” (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2001), 13-15, 153-4; the NASA and U.S. Air Force examples presented in this article are based on case studies discussed in A. Laufer, “Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management: Practices That Deliver Remarkable Results” (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: FT Press, 2012). Building trust was a key to the success of all eight case studies documented in this book.

9. Zand found that trust is a significant determinant of managerial problem-solving effectiveness; see D.E Zand, “Trust and Managerial Problem Solving,” Administrative Science Quarterly 17, no. 2 (June 1972): 229-239.

10. Styhre, “Leadership as Muddling Through”; and D.P. Baker, R. Day and E. Salas, “Teamwork as an Essential Component of High-Reliability Organizations,” Health Services Research 41, no. 4, part 2 (August 2006): 1576-1598.

11. A. Laufer, “Breaking the Code of Project Management” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 46-48; and P.G. Smith, “Flexible Product Development: Building Agility for Changing Markets” (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 186-188.

12. A.C. Edmondson, “The Competitive Imperative of Learning,” Harvard Business Review 86, no. 7-8 (July-August 2008): 60-67.

13. A.C. Edmondson, “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy” (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 115-148.

14. M.P. Rice, G.C. O’Connor and R. Pierantozzi, “Implementing a Learning Plan to Counter Project Uncertainty,” MIT Sloan Management Review 49, no. 2 (winter 2008): 19-22.

15. J. Collins and M.T. Hansen, “Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All” (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 26-30; and G. Klein, “Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Learning” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009), 147-163. On the importance of discovering a problem early on, see W.A. Sheremata, “Finding and Solving Problems in Software New Product Development,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 19, no. 2 (March 2002): 144-158.

16. Organizational researcher Karl E. Weick stresses that the ability to notice disruptions early on is not detached from the ability to cope with these disruptions. As he puts it: “When you develop the capacity to act on something, then you can afford to see it.” K.E. Weick, “Drop Your Tools: On Reconfiguring Management Education,” Journal of Management Education 31, no.1 (February 2007): 5-16.

17. L.R. Sayles and M.K. Chandler, “Managing Large Systems: Organizations for the Future” (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 218-219; B.K. Muirhead and W.L. Simon, “High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper” (New York: Harper Business, 1999), 76-77; Styhre, “Leadership as Muddling Through”; and Laufer, “Breaking the Code of Project Management,” 104-105.

18. For the importance of fast response to implementation problems, see C. Sicotte and G. Paré, “Success in Health Information Exchange Projects: Solving the Implementation Puzzle,” Social Science & Medicine 70, no. 8 (April 2010): 1159-1165.

19. A.J. Nurick and H.J. Thamhain, “Developing Multinational Project Teams,” chap. 5 in “Global Project Management Handbook: Planning, Organizing and Controlling International Projects,” second ed., eds. D.I. Cleland and R. Gareis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006). Nardi and Whittaker concluded that engaging attention is crucial for effective communication, and that it can be facilitated by face-to-face communication; see B.A. Nardi and S. Whittaker, “The Place of Face-to-Face Communication in Distributed Work,” in “Distributed Work,” eds. P. Hinds and S. Kiesler (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), 95-97.

20. In a study of project managers on construction sites, it was found that moving about at the on-site production areas occupied 28 percent of their time. See A. Laufer, A. Shapira and D. Telem, “Communicating in Dynamic Conditions: How Do On-Site Construction Project Managers Do It?” Journal of Management in Engineering 24, no. 2 (April 2008): 75-86.

21. A.P. Snow, M. Keil and L. Wallace, “The Effects of Optimistic and Pessimistic Biasing on Software Project Status Reporting,” Information & Management 44, no. 2 (March 2007): 130-141.

22. H. Mintzberg, “Managing” (San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), 89-91; H. Mintzberg, “Managers, Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development” (San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004), 238-275; and Boehm and Turner, “Balancing Agility and Discipline,” 25-57.

i. For examples of the poor statistics of project results, see Williams, “Assessing and Moving on From the Dominant Project Management Discourse”; B. Flyvbjerg, M.K. Skamris Holm and S.L. Buhl, “How Common and How Large Are Cost Overruns?”; and K.A. Brown, N.L. Hyer and R. Ettenson, “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer,” MIT Sloan Management Review 55, no. 1 (fall 2013): 49-57. For examples of discussions regarding the gaps between research and practice, see M. Engwall, “PERT, Polaris, and the Realities of Project Execution,” International Journal of Managing Projects in Business 5, no. 4 (2012): 595-616; S. Lenfle and C. Loch, “Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty,” California Management Review 53, no. 1 (fall 2010): 32-55; S. Cicmil, T. Williams, J. Thomas and D. Hodgson, “Rethinking Project Management: Researching the Actuality of Projects,” International Journal of Project Management 24, no. 8 (November 2006): 675-686; and L. Koskela and G. Howell, “The Underlying Theory of Project Management Is Obsolete,” in “Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002: Frontiers of Project Management Research and Application” (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, 2002), 293-301.

ii. M.S. Feldman and W.J. Orlikowski, “Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory,” Organization Science 22, no. 5 (September-October 2011): 1240-1253; and S. Tengblad, ed., “The Work of Managers,” 337-354. Our research approach was influenced in many respects by management scholar Henry Mintzberg’s approach. That includes viewing management as a practice (not as a profession) and stressing the use of systematic observations of managers. In particular, it involves the use of “rich description,” about which Mintzberg writes: “I need to be stimulated by rich description. … Tangible data is best … and stories are best of all. …Anecdotal data is not incidental to theory development at all, but an essential part of it.” See H. Mintzberg, “Developing Theory About the Development of Theory,” in “Great Minds in Management: The Process of Theory Development,” eds. K.G. Smith and M.A. Hitt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 355-372.

iii. See, for example, E. Wenger, R. McDermott and W.M. Snyder, “Cultivating Communities of Practice” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 49-64; and J.S. Brown, “Narrative as a Knowledge Medium in Organizations,” in J.S. Brown, S. Denning, K. Groh and L. Prusak, “Storytelling in Organizations: Why Storytelling Is Transforming 21st Century Organizations and Management” (Burlington, Massachusetts: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005), 53-95.

iv. D. Lee, J. Simmons and J. Drueen, “Knowledge Sharing in Practice: Applied Storytelling and Knowledge Communities at NASA,” International Journal of Knowledge and Learning 1, no. 1-2 (2005): 171-180.

2 Comments On: What Successful Project Managers Do

  • Kolawole Awotundun-Francis | August 3, 2015

    I absolutely concur with the article as it further heightens my appreciation for adoption of dual tactics from Strategy and Execution because it has become imperative for todays managers to be flexible in combating emergent challenges that somewhat may not have been foreseen or diagnosed. It is therefore right to lean more on the emergent startegies along with basic planning technicality if success is to be achieved in meeting stakeholders expectation even when they are outside market forces.
    Thanks MITSloan for the insight.
    Kola Awotundun-Francis

  • shweta sharma | June 1, 2018

    Great post, I totally agree with your point of view. Project managers have greatly become a part of organizational success. They are the ones who are likely to measure the values of resources constantly and add value to the team. The demand for project management talent is growing globally equally in all fields of information technology, healthcare, manufacturing, finance, construction or business services. And for good project management the best software is ProofHub. With ProofHub, your teams, clients and all the project communication stays in one place. There’s no need of investing in too many different tools to run your business.

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