Projects do run into difficulties from time-to-time, that’s the nature of projects and you shouldn’t be surprised. Indeed, as Elmar Kutsch, Mark Hall and Neil Turner illustrate in their great new book Project Resilience, you may not be able to predict a crisis but you can very likely predict how people will respond.
When a crisis hits a project, there are often specific types of behaviours. These too are counterproductive because, ironically, they can reinforce the chaos instead of helping with a solution.
The Defensive Retreat
In a crisis situation characterised by chaos, one is likely to lose orientation. ‘Where are we?’, ‘What is happening?’, ‘What shall we do (quickly)?’ are some of the questions that project staff ask themselves in their new situation. As a result, and because of that uncomfortable feeling of ‘being lost’, we often tend to fall back on our basic instincts – on self-preservation. We become more inward looking and try to cover ourselves as individuals. Divisions that emerged during the incubation time (if there was any) may intensify. Instead of more collaboration, we shift towards more adversarial relationships. We start building a wall around us that gives us an illusion of comfort. Collaborative decision-making becomes less likely.
Going hand-in-hand with increased defensiveness in the face of a crisis is a change in the way we communicate. Communication can be used to preserve our integrity and even to damage others. Information is exchanged, not necessarily for the purpose of exploring what is happening or what we should do next but to lessen any potential blame attaching to oneself. Emails sent for the purpose of explaining one’s decisions and leaving a trail to be used later to justify one’s actions make sense in that narrow personal context, but may not help the project in the here-and-now. Communication can degenerate into accusations and thus becomes more destructive than helpful in crisis recovery. It is especially important to look for this in inter-departmental or client-provider communication as each group may well retreat to its own domain for relative safety if it looks as if the project is unravelling. When trust falters, resorting to ‘formal’ communication alone can virtually eliminate the spontaneity, collaboration and improvisation that may be vital for a resolution at that moment.
Perhaps you are in the midst of a project crisis but have avoided building a defensive wall around you, retrenching and resorting to a blame game. There is a tendency, when we do not see progress from others, to feel the need to assume control. We believe that we can do better, and that by transferring power to ourselves we can single-handedly deal with the situation more effectively than we could as a group. Unfortunately, this form of centralisation (and the accompanying power games) is often a side-effect of a crisis situation in projects.
Thinking and Acting in the Past
It is likely that this crisis, in its totality, is of a type that you have not directly experienced before. However, human nature means that it is also likely that you will rely on recovery mechanisms you have deployed in the past. Tackling a novel problem that requires quick and decisive action through drawing on past solutions is not only likely to be ineffective, but might actually exacerbate the crisis. We are habitual creatures and we tend to rely on our past experiences and schemas of action. However, these past-informed habits may not fit the present crisis. Being aware of this may enable you to focus more clearly on new, more creative, solutions to the current problems.
Under increased stress, the scope of our radar narrows and shortens. Our minds tend to focus on single actions, and the insufficiency of a response in alleviating the situation is compensated by further fixation on executing it, sometimes over and over. Such fixation may prevent us from remaining sensitive to the bigger picture of what is going on around us.
Key Enablers to Recovering
The behaviours that typically emerge in crisis situations are ones that need to be actively managed. Usually, the goals when faced with a crisis are its immediate resolution and ‘damage control’. This is important, but so too is a necessary shift in the way the crisis is managed. As quickly as possible, the recovery stage needs to be initiated.
This book is very much about the ‘soft’ aspects of project management, about behaviours and applied practice. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the need for some structure. Every crisis response involves business continuity planning. For project work, this continuity plan defines which functions in the project it is critical to address and maintain. For example, in a software development project, a critical function might be the ‘testing environment’ in which sections of code are brought together and functionally evaluated. If these critical functions come to a standstill, the whole project could be put on hold. In a crisis, such functions deserve special attention. So, a plan is important in that it helps to be ready. What it does not do is prepare a project team for a potential crisis.
In a crisis, the resulting stress and ‘tunnel vision’ may actually be countered by the relative ‘automation’ of a checklist. A checklist should not replace human situated cognition, but it can help to probe the situation and aid a project manager’s mindfulness. A good checklist is one that is:
- Short and simple. Simplicity forces project managers to accept a stimulus, and to interpret.
- It aims at critical functions of a project. Insignificant components of a project are not checklisted.
- It only offers probes based on actions that are doable and feasible.
We might have all the necessary plans in place but because of the unfamiliar character of a crisis, people are not ready to exercise those plans, let alone be reflective and creative. The question this raises is how to sensitise people for a crisis, in a safe environment, before the crisis actually happens. One answer lies in simulating worst case scenarios. Crisis simulations have the great benefit of getting close to risk and uncertainty situations. Playing and living through worst-case settings, to test ones endurance and adaptability in a ‘live’ but safe environment, is at the core of simulating crises.
It is a great puzzle that, in many projects where substantial value is at stake, planning and preparation involve tools and techniques that do not really incorporate the emotive side of managing risk and uncertainty. Most planning approaches advocated in project management seem to exclude the behavioural side of a crisis. If you can, simulate a crisis that allows you to receive immediate feedback on key stakeholders’ behaviours and skills under high-stress conditions. It is too late to test these out when a real crisis is already unfolding.
Adapted from Project Resilience: the Art of Noticing, Interpreting, Preparing, Containing and Recovering by Elmar Kutsch, Mark Hall and Neil Turner, 2015, Gower Publishing, Farnham
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