CQU Project Management education

Disaster management for project managers

Adeline Teoh
March 17, 2011

“A crisis is a decision-making point,” says Campbell. “Crisis management differs from other types of management in that it has to provide an orderly and efficient transition from normal to emergency conditions under unusual circumstances. It’s management under pressure, it’s decision-making under pressure and it’s leadership under pressure.”

Flynn certainly knows the value of the right resources. She says the ARC is very careful about hiring project managers who can deal with that pressure, provide an accurate assessment and analysis of a disaster situation, and get the response underway.

“Because the consequences of disaster management are humanitarian, we engage and deploy the best people we can. We invest in highly qualified project managers because we can’t afford to get it wrong,” she explains. “We can’t underestimate the importance of really good project management.”

When disaster strikes

“The project is only executed when the crisis occurs, but good project management is all of the work before it,” says Campbell.

It’s what disaster managers call the response phase. While planning is proactive, in most disaster situations there’s rarely any forewarning, says Flynn: “We can do risk mapping, but the reality is the response is the reactive part of disaster management.”

It’s this stage that presents the biggest challenges for disaster managers. Not only is the timeframe in the initial response phase condensed, disaster managers may also have to deal with a variety of issues and changing circumstances that could affect their best-laid plans.

Access and logistics could be problematic, and security may be an issue, nominates Flynn. If the disaster-struck area is difficult to access, it may be hard to assess, which will affect the organisation’s response, including judgements about whether it is safe to enter an area to provide relief, for example in the case of an earthquake where possible aftershock is a consideration.

Then there’s the human element to consider “in terms of acceptance by the country, by the government, by the local community” and keeping an eye on the disaster response of other organisations, says Flynn: “It’s often incredibly challenging to understand who is involved, and what they’re doing, to effectively coordinate [a response] so that you’re adding value in a gap that’s not already being addressed.”

For project managers outside specialised disaster management, Campbell believes it’s important to have practised a response through previous trials. “The only way to deliver it is to have done it and face what could happen. Every risk has an escalation factor you work through in scenario testing,” he says. “There’s no time to scope when a crisis hits. You can do it on the run but it can be more damaging.”

The speed of the response will be a key success factor, he adds. “You have to have a standard response in that you have to follow the same pattern: immediate leadership and control of the response, the predetermined actions to take that control, and managing the communication with key stakeholders,” Campbell describes. “Lead the response. Time can’t be spent on legitimising the work, you have to do it with a sense of purpose and an absence of role conflicts.”

Having a sound understanding of the organisation is therefore an advantage, says Smithson. “If disaster strikes, the change manager needs to be fast and have good organisational knowledge. An internal change manager would have a head start on an external manager simply because the timeframes are so condensed you don’t have time to say ‘how many people, how will this affect them?’”

Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of ProjectManager.com.au. She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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