Managing the Urgent and Unexpected [Book Review]

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Urgent and unexpected projects have to be rare to be tolerable. You couldn’t sustain a business that lurched from one unexpected initiative to another, but we all know they happen. Managing the Urgent and Unexpected, by Stephen Wearne and Keith White-Hunt, is a book of case studies and commentary aimed at preparing organisations for these problem projects.

The lessons learned aren’t applicable to the majority of projects at individual levels. Rather, they are designed to help PMO and business leaders put plans in place for those unexpected issues where projects are started quickly and need to be done faster than normal.

Examples? The book includes case studies of dealing with the outcomes of natural disasters such as floods and broken power lines, along with the pile sift, make safe and remove operations at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 disaster in 2001.

The teams required for ‘unexpected’ work

‘Unexpected’ projects deal with a problem that has not been foreseen in terms of:

  • Probability
  • Nature
  • Timing
  • Scale.

Each of these requires a different type of team.

Where a project is unexpected in probability or nature, bespoke resources are required. These are teams formed specifically and entirely for the project.

Where a project is unexpected in timing, the authors conclude that augmented resources are required. These are teams formed partly by the diversion of existing project team resources and party by temporary employees who are brought in to augment the team.

Where a project is unexpected in scale, the teams are formed by diverted resources: moving people away from the related projects they are already working on to create a project team for the unexpected project.

The difference in these team formations is that where the project addresses a need which is related to current ongoing work, it’s straightforward to divert resources from existing projects. When it’s in response to a completely new problem, you don’t have the resources already employed on the right type of work and you’ll need to bring them in.

Devolved hierarchy still works

I am glad that the command and control style of leadership has died a death. It doesn’t sit with my personal leadership style. But I did think that in a crisis having a clear leader to impose a sense of direction and control would be beneficial. It turns out that is not the case.

The authors use examples and research to demonstrate that even when faced with lots of unknowns and the need to respond urgently, local, devolved decision-making is still best. They talk about emergency services and the military’s approach to this kind of work and write:

‘Empowerment’ is the equivalent term in management literature meaning that the principle is established ahead of an event that an individual or team has the authority to match their knowledge of a situation. In Western culture managers are expected to delegate this authority, keep distant and check primarily on how authority is used without ‘interfering’ in what is decided.

In other words, it’s the people on the ground who have the best view of the situation and they have the best knowledge of how to deal with rapidly changing situations.

In a crisis, speed matters

Time is often the major factor in these projects, overriding cost as a measure. The book includes a detailed description of how to balance the cost of working faster than normal with the question ‘how much extra cost should we incur?’ in all the case studies, “the value of delivering the work to be done was agreed to be overwhelmingly greater than the likely extra cost of working as fast as possible,” write the authors.

Other themes for success

Outside of speed, what else makes it possible to deal with an urgent or unexpected project? The authors analyse their case studies to make some astute observations about what helped these projects deliver successfully. They also draw some recurrent themes that PMO leaders and senior business managers should bear in mind when planning for their own future crises:

  • Early recognition of managing the urgent work as a project.
  • Dedication of full-time project leadership and the coordination to go with it.
  • Using capable resources, known to you (and therefore trusted).
  • Creating opportunities for team building where teams are not located together.
  • Paying clear attention to all stakeholders, including the media (some of the case studies described the lengths project teams went to in order to get the media on side).
  • Package up the work so that the resources available to start immediately can.
  • Adapt policies and procedures to ‘urgency’ (in other words, reduce bureaucracy).
  • Prepare to hand over the assets to the users of those assets.

You may not feel that you have authority to put any of these measures in place in anticipation of an urgent project coming your way tomorrow. But you can build them into the way you work now. Then they will become second-nature when (if) the time comes when you are asked to take the lead on something unexpected.

It’s an expensive book, but worth a read, especially if you are studying difficult projects and examples of where teams have worked well together despite huge challenges.

Have you ever managed an unexpected or urgent project?