Crisis Project Management

sirenIn life, not everything we plan goes smoothly. Within the corporate space, things can run like a well oiled machine for the most part. But sometimes, a problem manifests that requires immediate intervention. The severity of the problem and its impact can literally cause everything at the company to stop in its tracks until the issue is resolved. Examples such as the Titanic disaster, the BP oil spill, the financial debacle of 2008 or the crashing of the Sony Playstation network. All would be situations of a crisis emerging that usurped any and all other priorities.

How a corporation responds to a crisis can have far-reaching consequences as to how it is perceived by the public and its customer base. Being too dismissive of an issue or being inconsiderate to the individuals affected by the problem can result in a serious financial hit to the company and the loss of both market cap and prestige.

Consider the BP oil spill in the gulf and the subsequent debacle with regards to the PR that was being performed at the time. The problem itself was continually treated as not as serious as it appeared and the response by the company was lackluster at best. To top it all off, once the problem became serious in the eyes of all those involved, the CEO of BP made one gaffe after another when it came to dealing with the public and trying to re-assure them that the problem was being treated seriously.

There are numerous examples that exist which demonstrate, much like the example above, that failing to deal with a crisis in the right way can have long-lasting ramifications for the company and the individuals involved. Careers have ended and corporations have gone under in situations that resulted from poor crisis management.

With all that being said, how does this relate to the project manager who may be responsible for overseeing the crisis project itself? What techniques, concepts and best practices should they employ to ensure the crisis project moves forward effectively?

The Crisis Tiger Team

Generally, when a crisis manifests, the first thing to occur is that the company will put together a team of its best and brightest to tackle the problem and find a resolution as quickly as possible. This committee of individuals or ‘Tiger Team’ as it is sometimes called, are instructed to set aside all other priorities and deal with the situation at hand. From an organizational standpoint, the team will likely comprise various experts and senior leaders from all facets of the company including marketing, engineering, technical support, and so forth. Additionally, various stakeholders will be listed as part of the overall crisis project and these could be individuals from both inside and outside the company. A key customer for example or a particular set of contacts from the media may become specific stakeholders in the project.

One key attribute for a crisis project is that the project sponsor will have a much more active role in the project as it moves forward. Depending on the severity and urgency of the crisis, the sponsor may be one of the senior leaders, a company executive or even the CEO.

Crisis Communications

Most project managers realize that one of the most foundational aspects of their duties involve effective communication. A communications plan for any project is a must, but this becomes even more critical when it comes to dealing with a crisis project. For a large-scale crisis that involves dealing with stakeholders or the media, timely and effective communication that keeps everyone apprised of the progress of the crisis project will go a long way towards ensuring that company’s view in the eyes of the stakeholders and general public will not be tarnished.

As such, the communication plan when it is drafted should include the procedures that will be used to pass information to and from the stakeholders as well as between members of the project team. To give as much credence to the Crisis Team, the sponsor should take the role as chief spokesperson for the project and act as the face of the company, especially in cases that will involve communication with the media. Being that the sponsor is generally a senior leader, their communication skills will be top-notch (hopefully!) and as such, will go a long way towards ensuring that information is being disseminated effectively. Additionally, the key individual who is acting as the primary spokesperson should remain constant throughout the crisis for consistency and to assure the stakeholders that the company is taking the matter seriously.

Schedules and Milestones

The project schedule is one of the key components of any project or program and will likely be one of the most referenced metrics. This becomes even more so in the case of a crisis project. Whenever a crisis manifests, the first thing most stakeholders will ask is ‘how long before the situation is resolved?’. Individuals who have a vested interest in a crisis and its resolution want nothing more than the problem to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.

For the project manager, this means itemizing the key milestones of the crisis project and having a specific schedule in place that is easily understood. Schedules themselves can get very detailed, but for a crisis, they should be abbreviated as much as possible so they are easily read and comprehended by those that may not be as savvy in this area. Having firm milestones and dates for specific aspects of the overall crisis project will also give the notion of progress moving forward and assure stakeholders that the steps to solve the problem and achieve resolution are being met. Also, if changes to the schedule have to occur or if key milestones cannot be met, this needs to be communicated as quickly as possible to the stakeholders along with the updated schedule.

Crisis Responsibility

When something goes wrong, the common knee-jerk reaction by individuals is to immediately go into damage control mode and take a defensive posture. It’s a vestigial characteristic of our psyche to take steps to protect ourselves from the situation. Yet in time of a crisis, it is one of the worst tactics to utilize. Acting defensively or cagey immediately gives the impression to individuals that one has something to hide or is not behaving compassionately.

Referring back to the BP oil spill example, one of the biggest snafus of that crisis was the manner in which the company acted in the eyes of the public. Rather than owning up to the situation, they immediately began to point fingers at other companies also involved with the rig that exploded. This turned a crisis management situation into a blame game. Additionally, the CEO of the company repeatedly gaffed in the public eye with statements giving the impression that he was more concerned with how the situation was affecting him versus the public. Clearly, this was a crisis management scenario that failed miserably and cast the company in a very negative light, eventually requiring massive reparations and an expensive PR campaign to try to invigorate the company’s tarnished image.

From the standpoint of the project manager, some of these actions may be outside of their specific realm. Nonetheless, the project manager will be functioning as the overseer of the communication plan and will need to continuously monitor communication traffic. Working with individuals in the marketing team can shed insight into how the company is being perceived by the public as it pertains to their handling of the crisis. Constant dialog with the stakeholders will also provide valuable insight and allow the team to quell any negative sentiment early if it is addressed in an expedient and professional fashion.

Documentation 

All projects will have a myriad of forms of documentation associated with them. Usually, they became combined into the aggregate project management plan. It is always important to always document as much as possible when running a project, but this becomes even more important for a crisis project. The actions that were taken, the steps involved, the people who participated and the conversations that took place. All this information should be captured and saved as much as is possible. One of the main reasons are from a legal standpoint. A crisis, even when resolved will have some level of follow-up and scrutiny associated with it from the legal realm and even government regulators. All will want to know what choices were made to solve the problem and if those choices were the correct ones or may have even exacerbated the problem. The scrutiny will also come from internal areas. A crisis project may for example have not been known outside the corporation; perhaps it was a design flaw discovered in a key deliverable that needed to be solved before the product was shipped. In this case, the senior leaders will not only want to know what steps were taken to solve the problem, but why the problem manifested in the first place. It may even be that the project manager was both responsible for the project itself and its crisis management. Whatever the case, this is where documentation becomes extremely important, not only for thoroughness, but self-preservation as well.

Lessons Learned

Assuming a crisis is managed, one of the most important follow-ups is to determine what lessons were learned during the crisis management process, which ones worked and which were deficient, what risks were encountered and potentially overlooked and what templates could potentially be created for re-use in a future crisis. Knowledge is after all, power and the information garnered from a particular crisis and its mitigation could be invaluable the next time a crisis emerges. As such, along with the aforementioned documentation, having some meetings post-crisis to itemize and document the lessons learned is an important aspect of the overall crisis management process and should always be performed as part of the overall project closure.

**Conclusions**

Not everything in life always goes as planned and how we react to situations that arise has many far-reaching implications to not only ourselves, but the corporation or organization we work for. Handling oneself in a crisis is tasking to say the least; the pressures involved and the scrutiny from all sides is high. But with adversity comes maturity and many a seasoned project manager is better at their job and more confident in their abilities having gone through a crisis and managing it effectively.

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