Project Management Institute

Damage control

in the midst of a crisis project managers must know how to fight a fire without fanning the flames



WHEN DISASTER STRIKES, response time is everything. Whether it's a last-minute request to move up a looming deadline or an equipment failure that forces a facility shutdown, even a small brushfire can quickly rage out of control. And project managers are often the first line of defense.

“As the project manager, you have to limit the oxygen feeding the fire,” says Adriano Mota, PMP, a technology operations manager with the Organizing Committee for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.



—Dennis Huddleston, CH2M, Englewood, Colorado, USA

As tensions rise and tempers flare in an overheated crisis environment, a project manager must stay focused and provide calm, clear directions, says Dennis Huddleston, site manager at CH2M, an engineering and construction design company based in Englewood, Colorado, USA.

“That calming effect can have a tremendous impact on your team,” he says. “You want to clear their minds and focus, help them understand the hurdles and get those out of the way.”

In crisis mode, time is money. To avoid hemorrhaging funds while teams struggle with a suture, project managers need a proactive crisis management plan that focuses on communication and cooperation, says Mr. Huddleston. When a cooling water return line burst on one of his projects at a semiconductor manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, USA, partially flooding operating equipment and electrical control panels, his crisis management plan gave the team the tools it needed to shut down the facility and limit the damage.

Mr. Huddleston quickly mobilized teams, including one that was tasked with identifying the cause and another that rushed to remove water with vacuums and squeegees. The team also set up an operations control room with blackboards and charts to help assign each crisis activity (e.g., replacing pipes) to a team leader who created sub-groups that reported back hourly to the command center. In the short term, the team replaced a section of the broken PVC pipe. This divide-and-conquer approach helped the team get the facility back up and running as quickly as possible.

“When you shut everything down, that's going to cost millions of [U.S.] dollars per day,” Mr. Huddleston says. “You can't let a problem like that drag on for two or three days.”

His team also used the crisis as an opportunity to plan ahead. It mitigated the risk of future flood damage by replacing PVC pipe with stainless steel pipe and by installing new floor drains that would reduce future recovery times. And the project team asked engineers to identify and rank the items within their systems that had the highest risk of future failure. This allowed the team to stockpile spare parts or determine how to acquire the parts immediately in the event of an emergency, he says.




—Adriano Mota, PMP, Organizing Committee for the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

While Mr. Huddleston says the first step in resolving any crisis “is to prevent the damage from getting any worse,” he also recommends assessing additional risks after the initial emergency has been contained. “First you control the incident, then start assigning tasks to resolve [the deeper issue].”


When the heat is on, strong stakeholder management skills can help project managers put out the fire. But relationship building must start long before a code red is called.

Frequently asking for feedback and addressing stakeholders’ concerns makes it more likely that they will be prepared to pitch in when there's a problem, says Joshua Marotti, CAPM, PMP, senior associate project manager for the global services center—tax at PMI Global Executive Council member KPMG, Montvale, New Jersey, USA.

“In a crisis, your biggest ally is your relationship with the sponsor and stakeholders,” Mr. Marotti says. “That's why, at the beginning of any project, I make it a priority to understand the issue the sponsor is trying to solve and develop trust. It's important they know they can rely on me and that I understand their concerns and goals.”

For instance, when senior stakeholders requested a change of scope during a recent project to develop a new software tool, Mr. Marotti leveraged the trust he had built to avoid a potential crisis. He knew the change could cause a significant project delay—and create a crisis—because missing the deadline would have had a ripple effect on other projects.


When a crisis arises, project managers need a clear plan of action. According to Eugene Atangan, PMP, assistant vice president, operational risk management for enterprise technology, PMI Global Executive Council member TD Bank, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, project teams should heed the following steps to prepare for—and resolve—a project emergency:

Find risk factors. Project managers should partner with the company's enterprise and operational risk management teams to identify which risks have the most potential to spark a crisis. Managing the risk register will reduce the probability of a crisis—or minimize the impact of one.

Always be prepared. Assign a communications leader and define a clear chain of command for the crisis management plan. Set up a command post or “war room” to manage the crisis. If possible, perform a crisis simulation drill with the team prior to the start of the project.

Focus on the fix. Don't bog down recovery efforts by playing the blame game. If executives or stakeholders are demanding answers during a crisis, assign one team member to update them on mitigation and resolution efforts.

Don't repeat mistakes. After the team resolves the crisis, review lessons learned to highlight what went right and what went wrong. Share the project's updated crisis management plan so it can be leveraged on other projects.

Pull the plug. Don't prolong a crisis if a viable resolution doesn't exist. If contingency plans fail, it might be time to talk to the sponsor about terminating the project to avoid sinking additional time and resources into a problem that can't be fixed. The termination threshold should be determined at the start of the project rather than during a crisis. “This will minimize the risk of ‘paralysis by analysis’ and dependency decisions born out of emotion,” Mr. Atangan says.

He responded by outlining three options for the business team: skip the scope change and finish the project quickly; extend the deadline to account for the change; or use more resources to expand the scope and complete the project on time. The business team chose the latter, and Mr. Marotti says his strong relationship with the project's sponsor set a positive tone that helped him defuse the threat.

“I believe the sponsors were willing to entertain the various options because they trusted my experience in this situation,” he says.

On the flip side, failure to manage stakeholder concerns can make a bad situation even worse, says Chantee’ Fatt, PMP, manager, risk services, PMI Global Executive Council member PwC, Melbourne, Australia.

For instance, when Ms. Fatt took on a project to roll out an enterprise operational resilience project across multiple lines of business for a U.S. telecommunications firm, she quickly found herself facing unexpected hostility. Entrenched political problems had pitted the engineering team against her team, and the conflict was creating the potential for project delays. So Ms. Fatt started by going straight to the source.

“We tried to have a candid group conversation, but the engineering team was defensive, perhaps feeling like their work was being attacked,” she recalls. “Things quickly descended from there. Their emails were passive aggressive and the face-to-face meetings were confrontational. We kept trying different ways to express our support and understand why they weren't sharing information. It was a slow-burning crisis.”



—Joshua Marotti, CAPM, PMP, KPMG, Montvale, New Jersey, USA

To control the situation, Ms. Fatt arranged for other managers who had a strong relationship with her team to meet with the engineers, promote the project and build buy-in. Getting senior leaders to vouch for her team soothed the relationship with the engineers and gave them time to re-scope the project to ensure enterprise-wide adoption, Ms. Fatt says. Getting help from above also allowed her team to include the engineers in a series of workshops that were designed to pull the group out of its defensive posture.




—Adriano Mota, PMP

“We found champions at various levels of the organization,” she says. “For us, it was about having a continuous conversation. At the start, we expended too much energy trying to justify our actions. We figured out how to change their behavior by setting a good example.”


Few projects have higher stakes or face more public scrutiny than those related to the Olympics. And the projects prepping for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil have been no exception.

In July 2015, the Associated Press reported that lakes and bays polluted with viruses and bacteria from human sewage could force the Rio Olympics committee to relocate where some athletes sail, swim or row. While the revelation put all other project teams for the Olympics on high alert, Mr. Mota says his team has relied on disciplined project management to sidestep any potential crises during the buildup to the Olympics in August—and ease unnecessary tensions where no crisis existed.

For instance, during a test competition for a cycling event in 2015, medical staff, security personnel and other members of the venue management teams believed there would be a serious lack of mobile phone service during the event. Their concerns escalated into a full-blown crisis when they complained to the highest governing body of the Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games. As Mr. Mota fielded a barrage of questions from senior committee members, he aligned his services directory team on a risk assessment. The team quickly concluded that the problem had been blown out of proportion.


—Dennis Huddleston

Rather than put their feet down—or scramble to find an unneeded solution—the project team addressed the situation by asking the medical and security crews to demonstrate why the added mobile bandwidth was mission critical. That approach helped most stakeholders see that the existing coverage was adequate. The project team provided two-way radios and landline phones to assuage those who were still skeptical.

“It was important for us to show them that we understood their process needs,” Mr. Mota says. “In doing so, we were able to prove to them that the quality of coverage didn't affect their ability to get the job done.” PM

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