In a projects crisis happens, surprisingly, more often than anyone can think of. When Captain Edward J. Smith, the captain of the infamous ship – The Titanic, encountered the crisis it was too late for him to manage the disaster. Similarly, WHO and all governments are caught by surprise on the novel Coronavirus epidemic – a crisis that needs strong leadership and sound management.
It is critical that we understand the difference between the risk management, issue management and crisis management. Risk is an uncertain event that may or may not occur and if it occurs then it will impact the project – favorably or unfavorably. Issue, on the other hand, is an event that already occurred causing damage to the project or its objectives. However, a crisis occurs when the damage from the issue is substantial. Crisis roots into unpreparedness. Remember – there were only 20 lifeboats on The Titanic less than the 32 required lifeboats.
In my early project management career, I encountered a crisis when all the defense establishments in India was under different sanctions from the US companies and businesses including the erstwhile Informix corporation. The project was to upgrade the decade old IT systems across the 40 defense factories spread across India. It is important to note that these factories are in remote locations and traveling to these factories from my base location takes approximately 2 full days. Back in late 90s internet was not readily available as well. However, the signs were clear and we were not only able to handle the situation well but it also became a learning tool and the start project. We made certain changes in the project schedule that gives us some time to get the Informix licenses from the manufacture. We also created and deployed innovative tools including diagnostics tool, remote installation, and utilized skilled resources from the client side. The crisis was managed well and we were able to reduce our losses from hundreds of thousands of dollars to under 10,000 USD.
In yet another example from 2020, we managed another crisis in one of my projects that spans across three continents and 20+ countries. The novel Coronavirus aka 2019-nCoV started spreading in December 2019 impacting worldwide travel. This federal government SAP implementation program requires tremendous amount of travel and some travel were also in the highly infected countries and regions. We foresee the impact in early January and started planning for alternatives. From the project perspective, we are still behind schedule but we were able to save life of our project team members, their friends and families. Moreover, the travel cost was routed to the alternative planning and corrective actions which helped us remain within the project cost.
The crisis management is all about recognizing the early signs, planning and re-planning, creating impact awareness, stakeholder involvement and their timely concurrences, implementing the most viable strategy and continuous monitoring of the situation. The strategy that I followed and it worked well with all of my projects is a 6-step process which starts with the crisis identification.
The first and the most important aspect of the crisis management is to identify and acknowledge that the project may face crisis. If you, as the project manager, wont’s take proactive measures to identify it, the crisis will come knocking at your door and, most often, at the worst time. There are several sources to identify a crisis including but not limited to market trends, latest technology trends, news media, project risk register, enterprise environmental factors, project resources and more. Analysis of these information is the best tool that can be utilized by a project manager to identify the crisis. Once the plausible crisis is identified, the project manager must assess the perceived threat and plan accordingly.
Planning for a crisis that doesn’t happened is a task that all the project managers must perform but which is error prone and often requires many changes due to the lack of accurate information. In spite of the limited knowledge about the nature of the crisis, it’s a task that cannot be pushed down the roads. It requires knowledge, experience and many soft skills like negotiations, persuasions, communication, decision making to name a few. The plan must include the identification criteria and activation methodology, detailed and through action plan, continuation plan, communication strategy with contact information, perceived impact, contingencies, and resources. In addition, a project manager must revisit the plan frequently and make amends as necessary.
Awareness can only be achieved by constant and regular communication. It will help the project manager is getting the approvals and buy ins from the stakeholders. Obviously, a plan cannot be implemented without the stakeholder’s approval. However, you need to be extremely cautious about the communication and awareness strategy. Communicating the impact to the wrong stakeholders will put the whole team in chaos. Finally, in case of crisis, the project manager must implement the strategy and the crisis management plan and continuously monitor it. Believe me, you will see the difference when compare the implemented plan with the original plan.
The crisis will happen in a project but the impact of the crisis on the project and project objective is directly proportional to the quality and effort of the project manager in creating and managing the crisis management plan. It’s an integral part of the project activities and the project manager must demonstrate their leadership abilities to cater to the crisis.
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