Project Management Institute

Managing Risk During a Crisis: Six Lessons

woman leaping gap between large boulders

 Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

29 May 2020

Sunil Prashara explores best practices in managing risk during a crisis using PMI’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study.

Nearly all organizations are operating in some variation of “crisis mode” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The severity of the crisis varies by industry and region, but for many organizations, the situation could not be more serious—the pandemic and resulting economic disruption is threatening their very existence.

In this post, I’m going to share six principles of crisis management that we have found particularly useful in navigating this crisis. I’ll also draw upon the results of crisis research conducted by Quartz Insights in collaboration with Brightline™ – an initiative of PMI and leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the gap between strategy design and delivery. Here are the six principles:

  • Lesson 1 – Be clear on priorities. This allows you to take quick decisive action. 
  • Lesson 2 – Establish clear sensors and put in place a small, trusted team to meet frequently, monitor and recommend adjustments to the response. 
  • Lesson 3 – Take a balanced approach that evolves throughout the life of the crisis – first focusing on “protecting today” and later to “reimagining the future.” 
  • Lesson 4 – Manage the near term strategically, based on a holistic view of your challenges.  
  • Lesson 5 – Encourage outside-the-box thinking and work with partners to stay on track.
  • Lesson 6 – Understand your new context based on facts versus conjecture.

In explaining these principles, I have always found it better to show rather than tell. So, to illustrate these ideas, let me tell you the story of how we at PMI have put them into action in responding to the pandemic. 

We knew early on that the coronavirus posed a serious threat. PMI is an international organization, with staff in eight regions around the world and chapters in more than 100 countries. What’s more, the majority of our certification testing, events, and volunteer opportunities were traditionally conducted in person, requiring staff and participants to travel. Those activities would almost certainly be curtailed during a pandemic. 

We also have a very large presence in China and were increasingly concerned about the safety of our staff based there. Those concerns mounted as it became clear that the coronavirus was quickly spreading throughout Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world. 

All of this started to happen in January, and that’s when we went into crisis mode and began drawing upon these crisis management principles to guide our actions. It’s important to make a conscious shift into crisis mode, according to the Quartz/Brightline survey. When facing a crisis, the survey suggests, organizations must make a deliberate break from their traditional ways of working. Operating with a “business as usual” mindset can prevent them from isolating their in-crisis learnings and applying them to post-crisis improvements. Most of the survey respondents (68 percent) say that crises are inevitable for most organizations, and 93 percent of those agree that their companies go into crisis mode when crises emerge.

Here’s how the crisis played out at PMI: 

Lesson 1 – Be clear on priorities. This allows you to take quick decisive action. 

In January, shortly after moving into crisis mode, we settled on three priorities:

Priority 1: Safeguard the health and safety of our employees and stakeholders.  
Priority 2: Ensure operational continuity. 
Priority 3: Maintain services for customers and critical stakeholders.

To tackle the first priority, we made the tough decision to halt all travel. Not only was travel looking increasingly risky – with people in a confined space like an aircraft for hours at a time – but we didn’t want to potentially contribute to the virus’ spread. 

To further protect employees and ensure operational continuity, we moved the entire organization to remote working. Frankly, this would not have been possible even two or three years ago. But thanks to investments we had made in technology and infrastructure, we were able to have teams across all functional areas – Finance, HR, Legal, Sales, Customer Service, and more – work from home relatively quickly. Some functions, such as Customer Service, required a little extra technical support, but nearly all home-based operations were up and running within 48 hours.  

Finally, given the lockdown and travel restrictions, we had to move quickly to restructure our commercial activities so that we could continue to serve our customers. We postponed some events but were able to move many more online. We rolled out online-proctored testing so that people could sit for our certification tests at home rather than coming together at a central facility. We accelerated our development of a range of digital products and services so that members could use the time during the lockdown to enhance their skills. (We also offered these, free of charge. This is a time when we truly are “all in this together,” and our focus needs to be on maximizing our purpose, not revenue alone.) 

Setting these priorities early on helped us stay focused and allowed us to make some of these difficult and far-reaching decisions quickly. It’s worth noting that exercising these critical decision-making skills seems to have benefits long after the crisis is over. According to the Quartz/Brightline findings, 78 percent of respondents from organizations in crisis mode agree that their strategy implementation capabilities grew stronger as a result of the crisis.   

Lesson 2 – Establish clear sensors and put in place a small trusted team to meet frequently, monitor and recommend adjustments to the response. 

Responsibility for much of this decision-making was vested in our crisis team. It’s never more important to have a solid team standing with you than during a crisis. Our crisis team was small (for ease of mobility, fast decision-making) made up of senior leaders in key functional areas. They brought unique perspectives and all clearly understood our priorities, allowing us to track the disease, be agile in our approach and adjust our response appropriately. The team tuned out all the background noise, focused and listened closely to the experts such as the World Health Organization, our initial source of information about the pandemic. 

Lesson 3 – Take a balanced approach that evolves through the life of the crisis – first focusing on “protecting today” and later to “reimagining the future.”

Having set our priorities and created a crisis team, we moved quickly to implement critical decisions, adjusting as needed based on changing circumstances. One of the first things we did was give our remote teams the technical and moral support they needed to continue doing their jobs, encouraging our managers to check in with their teams regularly on their well-being.

Lesson 4 – Manage the near term strategically, based on a holistic view of your challenges. 

To ensure we were managing from a truly holistic perspective, we essentially involved our entire organization – some 550 staff members – in the crisis management process. We organized an All Hands meeting, a forum for formal announcements and where employees can voice out any work-related concerns. We also set up a regular, informal virtual coffee chats--our casual check-in to connect and engage with our global staff. Our goal was to understand what was important to employees and customers and give them ownership of how we were responding to the crisis.

In this, we were guided by findings from the Quartz/Brightline research: 75 percent of respondents agree that people rallied together to work with great purpose toward a shared goal when their organizations faced a crisis, and 80 percent agree that, having weathered a crisis, their organization was stronger than had it not faced a crisis. The survey also shows that companies that empowered non-leadership level employees who were closer to the crisis make decisions tended to emerge stronger post-crisis than those organizations that didn’t.   

Lesson 5 – Encourage outside-the-box thinking and work with partners to stay on track.

Now that we have stabilized the organization and put our new commercial framework in place, we have begun the process of assessing our operations critically and thinking about what PMI might look like in the future. Even if a system or process has served us well in the past, we’re assessing whether it will be relevant in a post-pandemic world. Let’s be clear: this is a terrible crisis that none of us would have wished on the world. But we have to play the cards we are dealt with, and a crisis can be a hidden opportunity to evaluate, change and, hopefully, improve for the future.

Lesson 6 – Understand your new context based on facts versus conjecture. 

A first step in the assessment process is to understand the new context created by the crisis. In the case of COVID, it’s clear that our future context will be very different from the world we lived in just last year. For the foreseeable future, there’s likely to be less travel and more social distancing, and many people will now spend more time at home on a semi-permanent basis. This will likely have a significant impact on how project professionals invest in their development and what they will expect from us in terms of value.

Clearly, the process of managing the fall-out from COVID-19 is far from over. Our job now at PMI is to understand all these developments and to assess their likely impact not only on our strategy, but on the future of work - and what that will mean for the hundreds of thousands of project managers as they undertake the difficult task of rebuilding our economies. 

We will also assess our response to the COVID crisis and determine what elements of that response might enhance our operating processes going forward. In fact, there do seem to be some longer-term benefits of operating in crisis mode. According to the Quartz/Brightline survey, of the 75 percent of respondents that agree that their organization’s strategy implementation, capabilities grew stronger as a result of the crisis. The most common changes were: 

  • Prioritization of strategic initiatives 
  • Speed in execution of existing organization processes 
  • Speed of overall decision-making  
  • Empowerment of crisis teams
  • Senior level involvement in day-to-day team activities

What lessons have your organization taken away from this crisis? And what will you do to prepare for the next unanticipated disruption? 

To learn more about the crisis research conducted by Quartz Insights in partnership with Brightline, see the full report here.