Extreme project management

Life and death risks are part of the job for Project teams working in war zones, frozen wastelands and disaster areas


Life and death risks are part of the job for project teams working in war zones, frozen wastelands and disaster areas.



Kashif Basheer Khan, PMP, United Nations, Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo

FORGET A COMFORTABLE OFFICE or familiar construction site—your next project may very well be amid the chaos of a political uprising or in the depths of the ocean. As project management practices spread throughout the world, many project professionals find themselves managing initiatives in some pretty extreme environments.

In these precarious situations, every-day decisions can have potentially deadly consequences. From laying pipelines on arctic tundra to installing telecommunications technology in war-ravaged villages, many locales present dangerous obstacles that must be carefully managed to keep teams safe and projects on track.


A project team working
on Alaska's North
Slope wears insulated
coveralls, face masks,
gloves and boots, and
when the temperature
falls below

-35 degrees

(-37 degrees Celsius),
the team works 45
minutes outside,
and then spends
15 minutes indoors
warming up.


To successfully complete projects in extreme environments without being overwhelmed, project professionals have to maintain realistic expectations about what they can accomplish. They also have to understand risks they face based on the location and its distance from support infrastructure, says Karl Schaeffer, PMP. He is an asset and operating integrity planner and project manager for Alaska Anvil, a project management, engineering and construction management services firm in Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

Mr. Schaeffer oversees a portfolio of corrosion and repair projects at oil fields on the North Slope, which lies on Alaska's northern coast. The work site is so remote that the nearest town, Barrow, is 300 miles (483 kilometers) away.

In many cases, a project team's daily routine needs to take into account weather and the environment. At the project site, temperatures often drop well below freezing. That bitter cold is usually coupled with 25-mile-per-hour (40-kilometer-per-hour) winds and driving snow.

“The tundra is environmentally sensitive and very fragile,” Mr. Schaeffer says. “During the summer season, tundra access is restricted to limit damage. Also during the summer months, we may not be able to access certain locations due to bird nesting and breeding, as well as caribou migration.”

That means most of the outside work must be done when the weather is at its worst. Mr. Schaeffer's team members must work all day in bleak conditions, so protection from the elements becomes an essential part of the project plan. They wear insulated coveralls, face masks, gloves and boots, and when the temperature falls below -35 degrees Fahrenheit (-37 degrees Celsius), the team works 45 minutes outside, and then spends 15 minutes indoors warming up. Mr. Schaeffer also follows protocol for shutting down equipment in severe winds.

Meeting project goals while protecting team members takes substantial pre-planning. From building extra time into the project plan for weather-related shutdowns, to addressing access to materials and labor at the remote work site, Mr. Schaeffer must know well in advance what he needs to accomplish, and how he will offset delays when inevitable obstacles occur. To minimize risks, the goal is to complete all planning for a project—including completed designs, materials on site and any special needs—at least six weeks prior to execution in the field.

“The Alaska North Slope oil fields are at the end of a very long supply chain,” he says. “If I've got a wrong or missing part, I can't just go to a hardware store. It's either going to cause a serious delay or a very expensive priority shipment.”

Project professionals working in remote locales should schedule projects in order of importance, he suggests, so that if delays slow them down, the lowest-priority projects in the program get shifted out of the queue.

On his current project, for example, teams rely on a series of ice roads that can be built only when it gets cold enough. The state then has to approve the frozen roads, and once they begin to melt in the spring, all work in the area has to be completed, and companies must get their people and equipment safely offsite within 72 hours.

Usually the roads freeze around the middle of December. This year, they didn't freeze for another three weeks, which meant Mr. Schaeffer lost crucial work time on an already abbreviated schedule.

His early prioritizing process helped minimize the impact of the delay. “My lowest-priority project is scheduled for the last weeks of ice road season, and I know that if I don't make up that lost time, I'll have to wait till next winter to finish it,” he explains.


For other project managers, extreme conditions come in the form of political upheaval or armed conflict. Those environments present similar obstacles for project managers, says Kashif Basheer Khan, PMP, communications officer on a United Nations peace-keeping assignment headquartered in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


>>In an extreme case of stakeholder management, Mr. Basheer Khan (center) and his U.N. project team took up arms to quell a riot in Katana, Democratic Republic of Congo, sparked by a murder linked to the military. Without firing a single bullet, the patrol negotiated with protesters and convinced locals to allow the courts of law to try the suspects instead of resorting to tribal violence.

“The biggest challenges in these cases are the dilapidated state of infrastructure and meager resources available from the land,” he says. “This puts pressure on resources, and creates unhygienic and constrained living conditions that turn the project into a personal challenge for team members.”

While most of these issues cannot be completely resolved, thorough preplanning and careful research about the risks of the environment can ease their impact on the team and the project.

Mr. Basheer Khan is currently working with the United Nations in the DRC on projects to establish operating bases and to install satellite and radio equipment in remote regions around the country.

“You have to be careful about things that you would normally take for granted, and you have to know the risk you take when you make decisions.”

— Andy Thompson, Arup, San Francisco, California, USA


A bridge on Route 5, a primary thoroughfare in Chile, collapsed following the February 2010 earthquake. The wreckage hindered emergency-response and damage-assessment projects.

Power outages, difficulty in securing fuel and route blockages due to landslides are some of the obstacles he faces in the execution of these projects. His number-one concern, though, is safety.

In choosing a location for a communication base, Mr. Basheer Khan must consider the threats to his team and to his equipment as the primary deciding factors. That means he eliminates the best technological sites for his outposts, such as isolated forest hilltops, because they could be crawling with combatants.

Even in relatively safe areas like military bases and civilian centers, equipment is regularly pillaged or damaged, forcing Mr. Basheer Khan to stockpile reserves whenever possible.

Being well-educated about the situation when he received the project assignment has helped him and his team adjust expectations.

“My greatest asset is a thorough understanding of the area, the people, the conflict and the constraints of this environment,” he says. “This information proved invaluable in translating the subjective parameters into objective calculations of procurements, human resources and spare parts.”


>TIP Build a lot
of extra time and budget
into project plans, advises
Kashif Basheer Khan, PMP,

United Nations, Bukavu,
Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It is the only way to cater
to those risks which shall
inevitably arise.”

Risks faced in war-ravaged nations and other extreme environments cannot entirely be mitigated. After time, though, project professionals often start to develop intuition about what's coming and how to respond.

“This innate capability offsets the risks as you grow in experience in operating in these remote areas,” Mr. Basheer Khan says.


That sort of a sixth sense can help project managers keep themselves and their stakeholders safe in intense environments, says Andy Thompson, associate with the global engineering consultancy Arup and leader of the company's risk consulting practice in the Americas, as well as its advanced technology and research practice in San Francisco, California, USA. Mr. Thompson specializes in earthquake and blast engineering, and works with clients on projects to assess structural damage after earthquakes and terrorist attacks.

This role means he rarely has time for project planning and must often rely on his own instincts to ensure the best decisions are made.

He was faced with a barrage of difficult choices when he was sent to Chile after the February 2010 earthquake to assess damage to the manufacturing facilities of several Arup clients. The country was still coming to terms with the disaster, and he had to fall back on his own skills and experience to identify all the possible risks to his clients.

During his assessment, Mr. Thompson noted that most of the structures showed only minor damage. At one of the plants, though, he noticed the braces holding a large ammonia tank had come loose. The tank remained stable, but as a precaution he instructed the operations manager to add additional bolts to reinforce its stability.

A few days later, a massive 7.0-magnitude aftershock rattled the country again.

“When it was over, one of the first things I thought of was that tank,” Mr. Thompson says. He immediately phoned the manager, who told him that they had reinforced the tank the previous afternoon. The bolts had been stressed during the second quake, but the tank was secure.

“If they hadn't put those bolts in, the tank would have collapsed and it would have been an environmental and business disaster,” Mr. Thompson says.

Safety concerns also extend to project team members themselves.

While in Chile, the Arup team got stuck for the night in a small town with a single open hotel, made from adobe bricks, which collapse easily in earthquakes. The nation was still reeling from constant aftershocks, and Mr. Thompson had to decide whether to stay in the lodgings or continue to the next town to find sturdier accommodations. That would mean breaking curfew and dealing with the associated consequences.


Sometimes project managers aren't based in an extreme location—but their teams are.

That means having to be just as sensitive to the situation as those who are working on the ground, says Alene Davis, senior project manager for SERA Architects, an urban revitalization and sustainable design firm in Portland, Oregon, USA. She sits on the board of directors and steering committee and is outreach coordinator for the not-for-profit Architects Without Borders (AWB), which works on design projects for communities in need. AWB partners with groups running construction projects in disaster-affected areas, offering guidance from afar.

On many projects, Ms. Davis must take into account the obstacles construction teams face in these extreme locales—all while she remains in Portland.

To manage virtual teams in touch-and-go situations, project professionals have to understand the challenges these environments present to team members and locals.

“You have to create a building that will function well in that environment, but you can't include the types of resources a developed-nation project might, like windows and air conditioning,” she explains.

On projects in Haiti or Ghana, for example, project managers can plan to have an architect design a building using concrete masonry walls with a lattice pattern to create natural light and airflow without the use of windows, which are expensive and difficult to transport. Cement for use in making concrete is also an easier and less expensive building material to transport than timber, especially in regions with limited transportation infrastructure and few resources.

“You have to understand the tools and materials available, and what works in those communities when you make decisions,” Ms. Davis says.


You also have to have a realistic view of what you can accomplish within the environmental constraints. AWB relies on its partners to educate the organization about what projects need to be undertaken, and how to navigate the local political landscape.

“You have to be flexible, and you have to be prepared for things to take a lot longer than you expect,” she says.


In the end, Mr. Thompson had his team move on, deeming the risk of the hotel collapsing greater than that of breaking curfew.

It's one of the many difficult decisions project leaders must make in these kinds of environments.

“You have to be careful about things that you would normally take for granted, and you have to know the risk you take when you make decisions,” he says.

Taking a broad view of both the goals and the risks of a project, and setting realistic expectations for what can be accomplished helps teams stay positive in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Mr. Basheer Khan says. “Working in unforgiving terrain demands the ability to go beyond the call of duty and work to achieve tangible outcomes in the face of adversity.” PM






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