Going to Extremes

Out-of-the-Ordinary Project Sites Force Teams to Prepare for the Worst



Blistering desert heat. Arctic chill. Middle-of-nowhere sites. When projects happen in extreme environments, teams face a test of professional skill—and personal will. Embracing a climate of unprecedented yet expected risks means teams have to rewrite the script to keep projects on schedule and satisfy stakeholders—while in some cases enduring life-threatening conditions.

Four project professionals reveal how they stretch the limits when they encounter high-wire circumstances.


Polar Plunge

Teams working above the Arctic Circle must be physically and mentally ready.

It’s never easy to complete construction projects when roads disappear. In the Arctic tundra, ice roads come and go with the season, and actual roads can become suffocated with snow. Workers bundled in layers must tolerate windchills that can drop to negative 70 degrees Celsius (negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit). A mere one-week shift in the thawing season can wreak havoc with project schedules. Yet this chilling and unforgiving environment is the project home for Kevin McLeod, assistant deputy minister, department of infrastructure, Government of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. “There is a lot of pride in managing these projects,” he says.

Mr. McLeod oversees infrastructure initiatives across the Northwest Territories, an area that spans 1.3 million square kilometers (501,933 square miles). It includes communities on the Arctic coast that are accessible only by ship in the warmest months when the sun never sets, and by planes when it’s coldest and darkness lasts for months. “If you don’t get your part on the ship in time, or that ship can’t get through the ice, you can lose a whole season,” he says.

—Kevin McLeod, Government of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

Risks like these demand that Mr. McLeod start project plans years in advance, analyzing weather patterns and engaging every stakeholder in what can be an exhaustive, complex and costly initiative.

“We spend a lot of quality time on basic project management and how we are going to get talent, materials and equipment to our sites,” Mr. McLeod says.

But the technical challenges are only half the battle. He also must foster a resilient mindset among team members. The most complicated work procedures are rehearsed in advance to make sure team members understand the challenges that await them. Investing in the best cold-weather clothing and safety gear will pay off in the long run, but team members need to test it out to ensure they can complete tasks when fully equipped, he says. On the site, warming areas are created to provide workers with a comfortable space to take breaks, hydrate, adjust gear and communicate.

Daily briefings not only ensure honest and open communication to measure progress, but they help establish an environment of trust amid treacherous conditions. Having emotional clarity also makes it easier for Mr. McLeod’s teams to close the door on stress and maintain strong relationships with vital stakeholders, such as designers who specialize in building parts that can withstand the site’s bitter temperatures—often no warmer than negative 40 degrees Celsius (negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit) during the coldest months. His teams also partner with transportation companies that specialize in flying parts to extreme locations, building winter roads and sending ships that can break through ice dams.

“We try to be a good customer so we know that the next time we need them, they will move heaven and earth to make it happen,” he says.

Island Dreams and Shipping Nightmares

An unreliable supply chain to the Caribbean requires constant monitoring.

To maintain one of the largest economies in the Caribbean islands, the Dominican Republic needs to make sure its infrastructure meets the demands of residents and tourists. But no shortcuts exist for getting project materials from other countries, such as the United States—placing a high-stakes priority on supply-chain management.

It’s an extreme risk on every project for Bryan Henriquez, PMP, project manager, AES Dominicana, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His organization builds and operates energy facilities across the island. Virtually all of his materials, parts and equipment have to be acquired and fabricated in other countries, shipped to a local port and approved by port authorities before they can be brought to the project site. If materials or equipment on the critical path doesn’t arrive on time, the project can be delayed for days.

“Our biggest risk is if we miss a planned date,” Mr. Henriquez says.


—Bryan Henriquez, PMP, AES Dominicana, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

He mitigates this threat by reverse-engineering every project plan to identify critical materials and equipment. This approach helps determine when materials will be needed on-site so the team can better estimate the lead time for fabrication, transit duration and customs clearance. Mr. Henriquez typically adds two to three weeks of contingency in case the equipment or materials encounter delays during the supply-chain process.


As the delivery date nears, he asks subcontractors to provide weekly status updates, and he follows up with calls and emails. “If we doubt the information we are receiving is accurate, we will send someone from the team to visit the fabrication shops to make sure that the progress reports are accurate,” he says. Days before the scheduled delivery, the team alerts shipyards and local port authorities to ensure the ports are adequately staffed to review the shipments and expedite clearance.

Despite the best-laid plans, shipment delays still happen. “It is a very common problem for projects here,” he says. So additional contingencies are always baked into the project plan.

For example, when his team was completing a project in March to install turbines at one of the island’s primary power stations, the schedule was fast-tracked to avoid power losses on the island. Equipment being fabricated in the United States had to be completed and delivered in 30 days. Yet one of the shipments got stuck in a U.S. port, which delayed its arrival by four days. With no float in the schedule, Mr. Henriquez immediately contacted the port customs authority.

The time he had invested in past years to build strong relationships with all port stakeholders paid off. Customs agreed to complete much of the clearance paperwork ahead of time, and officials agreed to prioritize review of the shipment as soon as it arrived, he says. “That bought us two days.” Then Mr. Henriquez revised the work schedule, bringing on an extra night-shift crew. Adapting resources increased the budget slightly, but it ensured that the project was completed on time, the most critical benchmark for success.

“If you have a realistic schedule, a good sourcing plan and a good risk matrix, you’ll know the triggers to watch for, and you will have plans in place so you know what to do,” he says.

How can project managers ensure teams maintain emotional intelligence while working in extreme environments?

“Give people more space and time to understand project requirements and needs. This helps foster resilience, patience and trust that the team can identify cost-effective and efficient solutions. When you work in a project where everybody has a common task with pioneering challenges, it’s extremely rewarding—and a great opportunity to bond.”

—Kjetil Kiste, PMP, senior project manager, offshore megaprojects, Wintershall, Stavanger, Norway

“In stressful circumstances, I recommend two things. First, be empathetic. This capability allows you to see the issues from many perspectives and gives you an awareness which will assist in solving issues. Second, stay optimistic—it’s a project multiplier.”

—Kevin McLeod, assistant deputy minister, department of infrastructure, Government of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

“We sometimes do team-building activities. When we hit an important milestone, the whole team might get together after work for a casual meal or some beers. Because we want to recognize the people that have gone the extra mile. We try to keep the people happy, and we try to empower them with the goal that having a successful project is the responsibility of everybody.”

—Bryan Henriquez, PMP, project manager, AES Dominicana, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

It takes a Village

In remote areas of South Africa, training local talent builds support.

Large infrastructure projects require heavy equipment and highly skilled talent. But both can be lacking in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, so Black & Veatch must get innovative to complete construction projects in the most isolated parts of that region.

“Leaders who have never been exposed to these project environments don’t always understand what we are facing,” says Gary Hattle, PMP, global construction director, Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kansas, USA. The developed world “is so used to working in an environment where you get whatever you need to get the work done quickly. It is not the same on these projects.”

One way his teams adapt to equipment and talent challenges is to go old-school, such as doing some of the most challenging work manually. For example, while working on a large decadelong power station project in South Africa, his team hired 20 locals to dig the trenches—instead of paying to ship an excavator to a remote location in South Africa for a few months. “It takes longer, but it costs less, and it provides jobs to people who need them,” he says.

Of course, the cost-benefit analysis of such choices varies greatly depending on the scope of the task, location and availability of local labor, Mr. Hattle says. For example, digging a trench 3 feet (0.91 meters) deep in firm soil where no shoring or benching is required might cost less by hand. However, if trench digging affects other project work, manual excavation might increase the total cost. “The cost savings need to be carefully evaluated every time,” he says.

Regardless of the task, his teams make training a part of every plan and often start assessing and developing resources years in advance. For instance, when Black & Veatch joined the power station project in 2008, the team began training hundreds of welders and mechanics a year in advance of needing them. A proactive approach helps them secure enough local talent and ensures that they can meet local hiring requirements.

“Training must be included in the estimate and planning of the project,” Mr. Hattle says, calling it an “indirect project cost.” Costs include paying new hires during training when they aren’t productive, which pays off in the long term. To illustrate the value of training local talent, he measures success in terms of labor efficiency (productivity plus labor costs) rather than just looking at speed. “When you are using less-skilled professionals, you can get away with hiring more people because they typically cost less,” he says. “We may get pressure from the home office about why we move slower than other projects, but this is how it’s done.”


—Gary Hattle, PMP, Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kansas, USA

The training also is designed to leave a legacy: establishing a sustainable workforce for a remote community’s future. That mindset can encourage the team to train local talent on how to operate and maintain a facility rather than just how to construct it. And once the project’s local talent demand is over, Mr. Hattle’s team partners with a country’s labor department to help the workers put their new skills to use. “It’s a small but significant effort to address unemployment in the area,” he says. “A project manager should consider what skills will provide the most sustainable work in the future.”


Icebreakers and Myth Busters

Being secluded from sponsors adds to the burden of proof for offshore oil production teams.

Getting prominent stakeholders to go all-in in treacherous environments often comes down to one thing for project managers: separating myth from reality. Project managers must devote much of their time to educating key stakeholders about the constraints they face—an effort that can pay off by getting stakeholders to embrace a strategic mindset.

That’s easier said than done with overly cautious stakeholders, says Kjetil Kiste, PMP, senior project manager, offshore megaprojects, Wintershall, Stavanger, Norway. Mr. Kiste helps design the company’s platforms for oil and gas production in the Barents Sea. In the most extreme locations, temperatures can drop to negative 30 degrees Celsius (negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit), and facilities can face an onslaught of storms, sleet, snow and drift ice.

With anxiety often running rampant, it’s part of his job to help project owners and government officials distinguish between real and exaggerated risks. “The main challenge on these projects is gathering facts versus going with expectations and intuition,” he says.


—Kjetil Kiste, PMP, Wintershall, Stavanger, Norway

For example, on one project, sponsors and other major stakeholders assumed that such facilities would face the same risk of ice loads as fishing vessels in the area do. Stakeholders raised the prospect of increasing the budget so the rigs could be designed to withstand significant ice loads on the operating decks. But Mr. Kiste explained that ice loads are caused by sea spray—not weather—and they only affect the lower 5 to 6 meters (16 to 20 feet) of the fishing boat’s hull. “Oil and gas production facilities are much higher, perhaps 30 to 40 meters [100 to 131 feet] high,” he says. As a result, sea spray, in practice, won’t cause ice loads on such facilities.

But the team had to go the extra mile to sway skeptics. His team spent months analyzing weather data, reviewing historical records and bringing in ice load experts from Canada to convince the stake-holders that sea spray was not a reason to worry—and that a conventional ice-load design would meet all requirements in such environments.

Taking the time upfront to establish a consensus of truth ensures the project is both safe and cost effective, he says. “Good communication and good data are key to figure out the right things to do”—especially when project conditions are uncertain or severe. PM



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