17 Lessons Project Managers Can Learn From Crisis Management
In my spare time, I enjoy reading books on topics from other industries or disciplines that are related to project recovery and project management. One of the disciplines that I like to read about is crisis management. The reason is probably pretty obvious. Many of my engagements as a project recovery consultant start with a project in a crisis situation.
Over the years I have read quite a number of articles and books on crisis management and from them I have distilled a set of principles and practices that are valuable for project managers. Besides these principles and practices, I have written down my own lessons learned from project crisis situations.
These combined notes have helped me a lot over the years, and I think they can help you as well. Read on for my 17 lessons on effective crisis management for project managers.
Lesson #1: Immediately respond to early warning signs.
Before any negative event occurs, there are always some signs. Your job is to learn to detect those signs and take immediate preventive actions.
Be aware of persistent customer, stakeholder or project member complaints; rumors; turnover in the project; and resistance to change due to innovation or technology. These issues always seem to start off small and begin to swell. Don’t ignore them, and dig in to find out if there is the potential of a problem coming at you.
Once you have detected warning signs, you need to develop a plan of preventive actions to eliminate the problem, or at least to minimize its negative impact to the project. Usually such actions are specified in your risk management plan. A good project manager has such a plan.
Lesson #2: If you can’t prevent a crisis, at least contain it.
After a crisis has occurred, you will want to contain it as quickly as you can by getting accurate information as to what was the real cause of the crisis and what the ramifications are. Next, you need to act quickly and decisively, communicating correctly to all levels of the organization while behaving ethically as you attempt to contain the crisis.
Lesson #3: Make decisions as quickly as possible.
During a crisis, your decisions should be made quickly because you do not have time to conduct a deeper analysis of the problem. Meanwhile, the decisions should be well weighted. Remember, you shouldn’t act as quickly as possible, but you should make a quick decision.
Lesson #4: Be realistic but optimistic.
When a crisis happens, don’t panic! If you become very pessimistic during the crisis, your project is likely to fail because you won’t be able to generate effective solutions and make quick decisions. So be optimistic when seeking solutions.
A realistic assessment of the situation will help you find feasible workaround solutions. Your optimism will inspire the team with enthusiasm so they will be ready to follow your lead and carry out your instructions of effective crisis management.
Lesson #5: Never run out of altitude, airspeed and ideas at the same time.
To ensure your project does not come to a screeching halt during a crisis, you should keep attention on the following three areas:
Altitude – This relates to maintaining focus on the big picture required for the leadership of a project such as project vision, critical thinking, ability to prioritize, motivation, and continually moving forward to accomplish objectives.
Airspeed – This relates to the velocity and forces that make a project go forward such as building relationships, having a good sense of humor, creating motivation through follow-through, being willing to listen, having the capacity to convey respect to others and their ideas, and having the confidence to tell project team members what they need to know. All of these fuel us to provide the airspeed to keep the project moving onward.
Ideas – This relates to your ability to brainstorm and incorporate creativity, maintain enthusiasm while challenging existing processes, and invite input from others from a variety of perspectives, as well as your willingness to try novel approaches and champion innovation.
Lesson #6: Face reality.
There comes a time when you must formally acknowledge that a crisis has occurred and communicate this to everyone. Don’t ignore or deny the urgency and severity of the crisis; rather, confront it and take charge of the situation. Don’t blame other people or external events for the cause of the crisis. Your job is to resolve the situation as best you can.
Lesson #7: Legal threads are reputational threads.
All legal threats—e.g., threatened lawsuits, regulatory investigations—are potential threats to your organization's reputation and should be brought to the attention of whoever is responsible for reputation management/PR as soon as they're identified.
Typically, however, legal counsel and even senior company management delay notifying their PR advisor, internal or external, until the shit hits the fan or will do so imminently. Rushed consideration of PR strategy and messaging is seldom as good as that which can be produced given more lead time.
"The court of public opinion can destroy your organization much more quickly than a court of law” —Jonathan Bernstein
Lesson #8: Take ownership of communications.
When a crisis takes place, people in the organization and project look for leadership to take charge. That is you, the project manager. Your task is to tell the facts, to define the situation and to provide hope that the situation is in good hands. The project manager should consider what needs to happen to lessen the crisis, what ambiguities needs to be cleared up, what needs to be communicated and what people are most concerned about. Be aware of your non-verbal body language so that it is in sync with both your spoken and written messages. People can sense when they don’t match.
Lesson #9: The big five of crisis communications.
The big five of crisis communications is a template for crisis communicators to follow and a standard by which the efficacy of crisis communications can be assessed. According to this template, crisis communications must be:
a) Prompt – or rumor and innuendo fill the gap.
b) Compassionate – if you don’t deal with people’s feelings first, they won’t listen to the facts.
c) Honest – no lying by commission, omission, or understatement, and/or exaggeration for the purpose of obfuscating the truth (“spinning”).
d) Informative – answering the basic journalistic interrogatives of who, what, why, when, where and how.
e) Interactive – in our digital age, providing stakeholders multiple ways to ask questions and engage in constructive commentary.
Lesson #10: Create a crisis management team.
The crisis management team (often called a task force) is responsible for the overall management and response to a crisis. This team should be created as soon as a crisis occurs, and it must include appropriate individuals from across an organization. The key to using this team is only activating it when necessary. Team members should know where to report to and their immediate responsibilities when the team is activated.
Lesson #11: Document all parts of your crisis management and actions.
Many crises will result in audits and intense internal, if not external, investigations of why a crisis occurred, how it was handled, and what could have been done better. As a result, all crisis management plans and actions should be thoroughly documented in the record.
Lesson #12: Encourage and demonstrate transparency and honesty.
As a project manager, do you squash debate in favor of politeness or do you encourage robust differences of opinion? After a problem throws you off-course, you want to make sure that you get your project back on track as soon as possible.
You want your team and the stakeholders to be open and feel free to express any and all alternatives to solving the problems caused by the crisis.
It is also much wiser to encourage and even reward internal whistle-blowing than to find yourself at the wrong end of news coverage, a lawsuit and/or a governmental investigation prompted by a whistle-blower.
Lesson #13: Know your limitations.
During a crisis, you can feel overwhelmed with responsibility and many project managers are tempted to try to solve the problem all by themselves. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and admitting to your limitations will actually benefit you. Acknowledge them, and it will enable you to find the right people to help you resolve the situation. This action will in fact strengthen your leadership ability since nobody really expects you to have all of the answers or go it alone.
Lesson #14: Respond appropriately to the media.
When a very serious crisis occurs, many large organizations have public relations (PR) specialists who respond to the press, but they need the detailed facts before taking action. You, the project manager, need to:
> Cooperate with the PR specialists and not obstruct their discovery efforts
> Minimize the lag time between the time the problem occurred and the response needed
> Gather the facts as quickly as you can
> Avoid responding to unfounded stories
> Be transparent and avoid “no comment” situations. If you don’t know, then say you don’t know and convey that you will find out the answers as soon as possible
> Avoid minimizing the situation by comparing it to worse ones. Remember the PR disaster after the BP oil spill?
> Communicate effectively and don’t try to confuse the facts
Lesson #15: Sometimes it's wiser to make peace than to be right.
Don't get into a public spat with government agencies or the media. They carry bigger sticks than you do, and they have long memories.
Lesson #16: Have a spokesperson trained before you need one.
The ability to make a flawless personal presentation to 1,000 people at a conference does not, automatically translate to an ability to conduct an on-camera media interview related to a crisis. Training is essential.
With rare exception, media interview skills are not part of a CEO's scholastic experience, and even if they were, if the CEO hasn’t kept up with them they have certainly eroded to the point of uselessness.
Effective spokespersons in a crisis must come across as compassionate, confident and competent.
Lesson #17: Learn from your crisis.
A crisis is unfortunate, but it provides an excellent learning opportunity for an organization, its employees, its upper-level management and its stakeholders. When each crisis is over, draft a set of recommendations and “lessons learned,” which can be used to prevent and effectively manage future crises.
If you don’t engage in a thorough post-crisis analysis, your crisis preparedness and response is unlikely to improve – ever.
Over the years, these 17 principles and practices have helped me to stay focused and on track when faced with a crisis situation in project management. I hope that they will prove useful to other project managers ans sponsors, and help you to mitigate and contain any crisis situations that come up in your organization and its projects.
Published at pmmagazine.net with the consent of the author
Project Recovery Consultant - Trusted advisor for doing the right projects and doing projects right.