Project Management Institute

Help is on the way

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HELP IS ON THE WAY

Fishermen relaunch after the tsunami off Koh Lipe island, Thailand.

 

THE NATURAL RESPONSE TO A DISASTER IS TO OFFER HELP, BUT UNLESS THERE'S A PLAN IN PLACE, MANY ORGANIZATIONS SQUANDER THE OPPORTUNITY TO TRULY SAVE THE DAY.

 

BY SUSAN LADIKA

IN THE AFTERMATH of a disaster, with throngs of volunteers swarming in, chaos often reigns. But project managers who take on a leadership role can help bring back a sense of normalcy.

From her home in Spain, Muntsa Bau watched coverage of the 26 December 2004 tsunami that inundated about a dozen countries stretching from Asia to Africa. The storm left more than 275,000 dead or missing, wiped out hundreds of thousands of homes, left millions without jobs and racked up US$8.3 billion in damages just in the five most affected countries.

Ms. Bau felt like she had to do something. She took a leave from her job as president of StrateGISt Consulting in Girona, Spain, and traveled to the Sri Lankan province of Galle, one of the hardest-hit regions in the nation.

This article is based on material in the white paper “Project Management Needs in Disaster Situations: Lessons Learnt From the Boxing Day Tsunami,” presented by Muntsa Bau and Ahana Lakshmi, Ph.D., at the PMI Global Congress 2007—Asia Pacific in Hong Kong.

In the weeks she spent there, Ms. Bau says she discovered the relief team was “dealing with things as they came, not working with project management protocols.”

The practice is not all that unusual in disaster zones, where countless volunteers from around the world pour into affected regions, all looking to offer a helping hand. But unregulated volunteering can create more chaos than assistance if team members don't receive enough guidance.

“A good leader and coordinator is not only [about] directing work,” Ms. Bau says. “Motivating people is as important as having enough material resources to cope with the situation.”

That's where project managers can play a leading role, bringing the day-to-day skills they use in their jobs to effectively deal with a crisis. Yet they must be able to think fast and be flexible to handle constant change. “You don't think, ‘This is risk management,’ you just do it,” she says.

A GOOD LEADER AND COORDINATOR IS NOT ONLY MOTIVATING PEOPLE IS AS IMPORTANT AS HAVING RESOURCES TO COPE WITH THE SITUATION. —MUNTSA BAU, StrateGISt

Project managers should make sure they have the right information at the right time in the right format for the right people.

On the Galle project, Ms. Bau gathered data for the United Nations Humanitarian Information Centre Programme. She traveled around villages, camps and homes, collecting facts about the condition of the residences, water supply and jobs. Those details were plugged into a database, along with the geographical coordinates of the camps and homes she visited. The database also kept track of places of worship, schools or other structures that could serve as shelters if another disaster struck.

One of Ms. Bau's ideas was to add photos of identifying items, such as showers, toilets and wells to the database, so relief organizations could easily locate the sites and see the changes that had evolved.

Although she had no special status in the group, Ms. Bau discovered that “if you demonstrate leadership, even if you're not in charge, [other volunteers] will follow you.”

Along with collecting information, Ms. Bau found one of her most important tasks was managing the expectations of the villagers. “So many organizations that visited had promised this or that,” she says. That left many villagers tired and frustrated that nothing ever changed, so Ms. Bau took the time to explain her role.

She also made it a point to respect the local people and their culture, she says. “You can't assume the way you would do it back home is the best way possible. You need to abide by local rules and customs if you want people to respect your work and see you as someone offering real help,” Ms. Bau says. “You might suggest your way, but never impose it on them, or the locals will surely resent you and you'll be regarded as arrogant and an intruder.”

Even if the disaster takes place in the project manager's home country, he or she must still pay attention to local customs, says Ahana Lakshmi, Ph.D. Although she lives in Chennai, India, she found huge differences in the habits of people living in big cities versus those in the remote coastal communities hit by the tsunami.

Before the disaster, few non-governmental organizations had worked in the affected communities, she says, so knowledge about the fishing villages and the customs of the people living there was lacking. For example, it doesn't make sense to hand out bread in a community that traditionally eats fish and rice. Many aid organizations also distributed boats to everyone, but typically they're owned by only a few villagers and the others serve as the crew. “If everyone has a boat, who works on it?”Dr. Lakshmi asks.

Information was clearly lacking.

In March 2005, the Tsunami Rehab Information Network (TRINet) was established to collect and disseminate information about the disaster, relief and rehabilitation activities, and government policies.

[ABOUT] DIRECTING WORK. ENOUGH MATERIAL
CONSULTING, GIRONA, SPAIN

Dr. Lakshmi signed on as program adviser and quickly realized that adopting project management techniques was imperative, particularly when seeking donor funding.

Even something as simple as the format and content of the project's newsletter shifted to meet the demands of stakeholders. “We changed the way of collecting information based on end-user feedback,” she says.

Although some individuals and organizations are forced to develop project management skills when a disaster hits, others already have plans in place.

“I think it would be almost impossible to operate in a disaster without project management skills,” says

Greg Meyer, vice president of marketing and sales for LVI Services, one of the largest environmental restoration firms in the United States.

Based in New York, N.Y., USA, the company has handled tasks such as mold remediation, dehumidifying and demolition after a string of hurricanes pounded Florida in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. The company also stepped in after the bombing in Oklahoma City, Okla., USA, and the terrorist attacks in New York, N.Y.

The company has project management teams around the United States, all ready to mobilize in times of crisis. They enter the disaster zone equipped with a mobile command center, sleeping quarters and full store of supplies. “When you get a disaster like Katrina, you don't know exactly what you're going to find,” Mr. Meyer says.

As teams move in, their first job is to assess the scope of the project. Typically, it's a chaotic situation with clients under incredible stress. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the firm had 3,000 laborers working on 500 projects along the coast. Project managers relied on the tools of their trade for scheduling, cost control and change orders, Mr. Meyer says. “Under those circumstances, it's important to have the tools and paper trail so you know where you are and where you are going to be in the future,” he says.

And in a high-profile disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, “when things settle down…there's going to be a lot of attention from the media and auditors,” so maintaining thorough documentation is critical, he says.

For project managers, disaster-relief efforts are “their most challenging work,” Mr. Meyer says. “And also their most rewarding.” PM

 

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla., USA. Her articles have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal-Europe and HR Magazine.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK | AUGUST 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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