In large-scale safety-critical projects unforeseen events and uncertainties must be carefully managed to safeguard the integrity of the end product and deliver projects to time and cost. Based on 47 ‘vignettes’ of uncertainty across projects in two safety-critical sectors, this study provides an empirical examination of whether practices consistent with theories of high reliability organising are adopted by project managers as a response to project uncertainty. Our findings are that confronting uncertainties in safety-critical projects does involve many high reliability practices. Respondents expressed a sense of balancing competing demands, and provided evidence of learning, acting mindfully, avoiding over-rigid processes, and of upholding constructive tensions, conceptual slack and close interdisciplinary working.
However these practices are often fragile in nature and dependent on key individuals. There are also differences between the two sectors studied, with more widespread evidence of high reliability project organising in civil nuclear than in aerospace projects