The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction


Transforming Construction Network Plus webinar discusses uncertainty in project management

27 May 2020

International speakers offer key insights on unknown-unknowns during Transforming Construction Network Plus webinar

Webinar: Managing Unknown-Unknowns

The Transforming Construction Network Plus held its third webinar on Wednesday 13 May. Addressing the question of uncertainty in project management, the webinar featured Professor Tyson Browning, Professor of Operations Management in the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, and Dr Alicia Hennig, Associate Professor of Business Ethics at the Department of Philosophy at Southeast University in Nanjing, China.

The webinar considered the unknown-unknowns in project management – the critical surprises that have not been, and could not have been, imagined or anticipated. Bringing in their perspectives, first from an Operations perspective, and then from Eastern thinking, the speakers discussed how to reduce and address these unwelcomed surprises.  

Building on the article Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management, Professor Browning first defined the unknown-unknowns or unk-unks, the uncertainties that aren’t predicted and can’t be determined using a basic risk management approach. Introducing the concept of direct recognition, he explained that it is possible to identify some unknown-unknowns:  

‘Some of the unknown-unknowns are actually knowable and we can do something about them if we know where to look and if we invest appropriately.’ 

To frame 36 areas worth closer investigation, he identified six domains where unk-unks might reside and discussed six factors that make them more likely to emerge. Finally, Professor Browning outlined 11 tools which can help to detect unknown-unknowns, distinguishing Project Design approaches and Behavioural approaches.  

Drawing on the article Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?, Dr Alicia Hennig introduced the concept of yin-yang, a different logic to structure and perceive the world. She offered an historical background of the Chinese philosophy and discussed this pragmatic and holistic ‘philosophy of life’. 

Considering the roots of yin-yang logic, she demonstrated how this concept can be helpful in the context of uncertainty and defined three key principles originating from it. She highlighted the distinctly different understandings of time within Western and Eastern thinking, and suggested that we should learn to think ‘circular, rather than linear’. Illustrating that change happens constantly, she also argued that we should accept change as natural, which would increase our resilience and coping ability. Finally, Dr Hennig considered the concept of co-existence, describing opposites as complementary and co-existing, and certainly not contradictory. 

She concluded by applying the following three principles to the project life-cycle: 

 ‘Yin-yang can help you with coping with change because you are better mentally prepared, clear headed in real difficult situations, and more resilient.’

The webinar concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Professor Jan Godsell. 

This event was the third of four international webinars from the N+, which is part of the Transforming Construction Challenge. The N+ is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The N+ is uniting construction’s academic and industrial communities to create a new research and knowledge base, dedicated to addressing the systemic problems holding back the sector.  

Watch online

A recording of the webinar is available to watch online:

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/gMakjv6ZdMk


About our speakers 

Professor Tyson Browning  

Professor Tyson R. Browning is an internationally recognized researcher, educator, and consultant. He is a full Professor of Operations Management in the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, where he conducts research on managing complex projects (integrating managerial and engineering perspectives) and teaches MBA courses on project management, operations management, risk management, and process improvement.  

Prior to joining TCU in 2003, he worked for Lockheed Martin, the Lean Aerospace Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Honeywell Space Systems, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He earned a B.S. in Engineering Physics from Abilene Christian University before two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from MIT.

Having previously served as a Department or Associate Editor for three journals, he is currently co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Operations Management.  

Dr Alicia Hennig 

Dr Alicia Hennig holds a full research position as Associate Professor of Business Ethics at the Department of Philosophy at Southeast University in Nanjing, China. She obtained her PhD in philosophy and applied ethics (business ethics) from Technical University Darmstadt, Germany, with co-supervision from Thomas Pogge (Yale, CT, USA). During her PhD she worked at a leading private business school in Germany, the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, publishing her first working papers on China and business ethics. 

Her current research focuses on Chinese philosophy and its application in organisations in the context of values, ethics and innovation. In addition to her research she also has practical working experience gained in Chinese as well as foreign companies in China. Alicia Hennig is cooperating with a number of educational and business institutions to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture and thinking, such as ESMT Berlin, the Austrian Center at Fudan University, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Frankfurt (IHK Frankfurt), and the German Chamber of Commerce in China (AHK Beijing; AHK Shanghai). 

Professor Jan Godsell 

Jan Godsell is a Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Strategy at WMG, University of Warwick. Her work focuses on the pursuit of more responsible consumption and production through the alignment of product, marketing and supply chain strategy with consumer needs. In particular Jan’s work focuses on the design of end-to-end supply chains to enable, responsibility, sustainability, flexibility and productivity.  She leads the Supply Chain Research Group and the Supply Chains in Practice (SCIP) industrial collaborator forum. 

As a chartered engineer, Jan has more than two decades of combined industry experience in product development, innovation, supply chain strategy, and process improvement working for ICI, Astra Zeneca and Dyson. She has advised government and industry on supply chain strategy and its relationship to industrial and business strategy. She has served on numerous advisory boards, and is currently a member of the Made Smarter Expert Panel and Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Advisory Group.