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Navigating Uncertainty: Crisis Management in Projects
By Tayyab Jamil

March 25, 2024 | 8 min read

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Written by

Tayyab Jamil

Managing Partner

Tayyab is the Founder and Managing Partner of Firewood. He brings a proven track record in leading large-scale transformation programmes, operating at CxO level. Projects led by Tayyab include a post-acquisition integration at London Stock Exchange Group and a large complex digital transformation at Cardif Pinnacle, part of the global banking group BNP Paribas. Tayyab is also a licensed P3M3 assessor and an associate lecturer at University College London. 

In the dynamic terrain of project management, crises are not just potential threats; they are inevitable realities. Successfully navigating these challenges requires a blend of foresight, agility, and above all, an adept crisis management strategy. 

Here are six critical steps, enriched with insights from recent global crises, for managing project emergencies effectively.

1. Summon the Crisis Management Expert: The first responder in your emergency

In a crisis, time is of the essence. The immediate step is to bring in someone adept at managing crises, similar to calling an operator on 999 in emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark reminder of this. Companies that quickly roped in health experts and crisis managers navigated the initial chaos far more effectively than those that delayed. Like these experts, a person in your project team that knows how to handle a crisis situation can rapidly assess the situation, implement contingency plans, and steer the team through turbulence. And by the way, this might not be the project manager or you. If it’s not you, don’t try to be the hero – ask for the appropriate first responder.

 

2. Control the narrative

When a crisis hits, rumours and misinformation can escalate the situation. It's crucial to communicate proactively with your stakeholders. Take, for instance, the 2020 Zoom security concerns. By openly acknowledging the issues and communicating their action plan, Zoom managed to retain user trust despite the crisis. Similarly, in project management, letting stakeholders know about the crisis and the steps being taken, reinstates confidence and prevents external narratives from causing further disruption.

 

In my projects, I ensure that I'm the first to inform my stakeholders about any crisis, maintaining transparency and trust. And if I’m not the one managing the crisis, I will at least ensure that people are kept informed and information is shared quickly. Don’t be afraid to be honest about what’s going on.

 

3. Full throttle engagement: Keeping the momentum until it's over

In crises, inertia and apathy are the enemy and let’s face it, we can all get bored of typing away in Teams chats or joining call after call. So maintaining momentum is vital. Consider how frontline workers during the pandemic exemplified this by working tirelessly, which prevented a complete healthcare collapse. In a project, this translates to being hyper-engaged: facilitating relentlessly; being the support your team needs; and ensuring everyone stays focused and energised. This continuous engagement is crucial for keeping the project on track.

 

In my projects, I’m happy to become the energiser - which might sometimes just mean being the tea-boy, but who cares when you’re in a crisis and need everyone to be ‘on-it’.

4. Rigorous fact-checking: Avoiding missteps in the heat of the moment

Amid a crisis, misinformation can lead to costly errors. The Boeing 737 MAX groundings crisis underscores the importance of accuracy and thorough fact-checking. The incident served as a stark reminder of the need for robust checks and balances in the product development and certification processes. And that quick decisions without proper validation can lead to tragic outcomes.

 

Given the time pressures involved in crisis situations, and people desperate for answers, you shouldn’t discount the process of ensuring your decisions are backed by reliable data and expert inputs. And of course, you’ll want to ensure the right lessons are being applied to your project or to the organisation itself. 

5. Expressing gratitude: Acknowledging collective efforts

Every crisis resolution is a team effort. Post-crisis, it's crucial to acknowledge everyone's contribution. The global response to the Australian bushfires in 2019-2020, where international and local efforts were crucial, reminds me of the power of collective effort. In project management, thanking each team member reinforces the collaborative spirit and prepares the team for future challenges. It’s also an opportunity to ‘shout-out’ fellow teammates who may not necessarily be remembered when the project is running smoothly. 

6. Don't forget you: The human aspect of crisis management

Managing a crisis can be overwhelming. In these moments, it's vital to remember our humanity and take a breather so we can be at our best to solve problems. When the pressure mounts, and you feel swamped, reaching out to a friend or a loved one can be incredibly grounding. A simple conversation reminding you that it's just work, and you're human, can make all the difference. Whilst we often remember to have empathy and understanding for others on our teams, we forget to do this for ourselves. Remind yourself that everything will be okay, it will.  

 

Hopefully by embracing these six steps, you can steer your projects through turbulent times with grace and resilience. A crisis is never welcome, of course, but they do happen and being prepared will enable you to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve got this! 

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