How can resilience benefit from planning?

By Pedro Ferreira

author - pedro-ferreira
Pedro Ferreira (biography)

Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.


From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning. The backbone of planning is widely recognised to be a more or less complex and distributed decision-making process that establishes priorities for the allocation of resources and attempts to reduce (down to levels deemed acceptable) uncertainty associated with the pursuit of such priorities.

An important element is also the definition of how any remaining uncertainty associated with established goals should be managed or mitigated. Uncertainty has, therefore, always been the underlying dominating factor of planning, so that increased operational complexity and interdependency require a shift in how uncertainty is addressed.


Resilience is a broad notion that has often been advocated as a solution towards better coping with high uncertainty, including being able to deal with surprise when unknown unknowns become evident. Although resilience has been widely discussed in the context of safety, security and other risk-related domains, it has seldom been made explicit in association with planning needs.

Planning and resilience

If we generically consider resilience as the ability to pursue operational goals within continuously changing (and therefore highly uncertain) conditions, then it follows that planning should be considered as a fundamental activity towards enhanced resilience.

By prioritising operational goals and how they should be achieved, planning can contribute to the reduced uncertainty associated with the pursuit of such goals, or at the very least, to their improved management.

For planning to achieve these aims, it has to be adapted to local realities, as well as co-ordinated operations. On one hand, this amounts to ensuring that local operations are given a clear overview of how allocated resources may be flexibly applied to achieving established operational goals, while adjusting to changing local conditions. Planning information should establish acceptable degrees of local adaptive capacities in view of both known and unknown sources of uncertainty.

On the other hand, planning activities must also recognise operational interdependencies and ensure that multiple local realities are coordinated to achieve shared operational goals and minimise their ‘deliverability’ risks. This includes planning across geographical, organisational and time boundaries, in as much as the operations for which planning is performed are carried out across such diverse boundaries.

This runs counter to strong trends in planning, which has evolved towards centralised control and prescription. Instead, in view of increasing operations with high complexity and uncertainty, planning must allocate resources taking into account the need for local adaptive capacities, whilst ensuring critical coordination across tightly coupled processes.

From this perspective, planning constitutes a fundamental step towards enhanced resilience, as it explicitly defines how operational goals may be achieved under highly uncertain and variable conditions.

Good examples of ‘adaptive planning’ have been observed in different high-risk industries, but mainly at a team level and from the perspective of teamwork, rather than as a planning activity in itself. This is the case for many operations that are carried out by relatively small teams often under extreme conditions of uncertainty and risk (ie., some fishing vessel crews, logging crews, among others). Individuals in these teams often reveal a precise awareness as to how they need to continuously adjust their individual work to match overall team performance, and when and what information must be put across. While these issues remain poorly explored, they raise some key questions:

  • What degrees of local adaptive capacity are needed and how should they be translated into resource allocation and availability?
  • What milestones are critical for ensuring the necessary levels of coordination across boundaries and how can they be effectively implemented and enforced?
  • How do such planning requirements change from one industry domain to another?

Biography: Pedro N.P. Ferreira is an invited Associate Professor at the Department of Aeronautics and Transport of the Lusófona University, in Lisbon, Portugal, a researcher (Joint Professor) at CENTEC – Centre for Marine Technology and Ocean Engineering of the University of Lisbon and at the CIMCYC – Centro de Investigación Mente, Cerebro y Comportamiento at the University of Granada, in Spain. He has close to 20 years of experience, both as a researcher and a consultant, in the fields of human factors and ergonomics, occupational health and safety, risk management and resilience. He has led several national and international projects on risk assessment and prevention across different industry sectors, namely in transport (road, rail, aviation and maritime), process industry and the oil and gas sector.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the nine other blog posts already published in this series, see:

Scheduled blog posts in the series:
February 11, 2020: Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns? by Bem Le Hunte
February 25, 2020: Theory U: a promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns by Vanesa Weyrauch

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