Crisis Management is not Project Management

by Krishna on March 18, 2009

project management

In the last few months, I had the misfortune of attending speeches where the talker took a fascinating subject about a real-life crisis and then went about brutally twisting the facts to fit into a project management paradigm. Without naming names, let me say it went something like “How to Manage Your Project by Learning Lessons from Accident X That Killed Y and Seriously Injured Z”.

Apparently, this seems to be a trend. Why, we even have “Deep Survival”, a book about surviving in high-pressure situations, being recommended by the Personal MBA people. Of course, non-fiction book writers have always had an inclination towards researching success and failure stories and trying to derive deeper meaning from them, where none exists. The enterprising author is the one who writes two books before the presidential election, each one expecting a different result, and releasing the correct one on the day after the election results are announced.

There are two big problems with retroactively fitting these real-life situations with project management frameworks and methodologies. First is, as Wikipedia says about “Blue Ocean Strategy”, such ideas are descriptive, not prescriptive. When the events actually happened, they happened to follow a particular pattern. They didn’t design and follow the pattern to achieve success or encounter failure.

For example, none of the companies mentioned in “Blue Ocean Strategy” actually followed the strategy recommended by the authors. They made their choices according to their existing decision making process. At a later time, someone (the authors) noticed a particular pattern and suggested that following the same steps may produce the same results. Which isn’t the same thing. Plus, there is always the question of whether there are other patterns that the “strategists” missed.

The second problem is that these real-life crisis situations have few similarities with software projects. Nobody’s life is at risk when a project fails. Worst case, some people get fired and, if it is a good economy, they find jobs quickly enough. Compared to tragic accidents, the events in a project take place at a snail’s pace. There are many, many opportunities in a project to reverse the decisions that are leading in the wrong direction, but many different factors (ego, fear of change, ignorance, etc.) prevent it from happening.

Projects do have their crises. But even those projects do not start as crises. They reach there by various decisions made during the project — wrong decisions made with deliberateness and under calm conditions. For example, there might be an error in estimating the resources required, or a mistake in choosing a particular technology or design choice, or an oversight of a critical stakeholder.

By focusing on managing crises, the project manager ignores his upfront responsibilities that could prevent those crises happening in the first place. It also glorifies fire-fighting heroics, which can act as a powerful addiction for some people who continue to operate in crisis mode and keep everyone on edge. That is not a good long-term management solution.

[Photo licensed from jurvetson]

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