CQU Project Management education

Disaster management for project managers

Adeline Teoh
March 17, 2011

The recovery position

It’s also important to understand the point at which response becomes recovery, and plan the handover period accordingly. “The other challenge is, and this happens in project management, is when is the disaster over and when does the disaster management role need to wind down?” poses Smithson. “How long the activity runs for is an important decision as well.”

In a humanitarian disaster, recovery includes everything from rebuilding communities and providing infrastructure, to implementing disaster risk reduction strategies to prevent repeat impacts. Flynn believes response and recovery definitely overlap, at least in the minds of those affected: “In communities that are affected, they’re thinking recovery from day one. People think about the longer term, ‘what do we need to move forward?’”

For other types of disaster—say, an IT failure—it could be the point at which the organisation returns to ‘business as usual’. The distinction between response and recovery is therefore the point at which the organisation has successfully concluded dealing with the immediate effects of the adverse situation, and has begun the process to return to normal operations.

Disaster recovery is probably more familiar to project managers: scope is more easily defined and more conventional aspects such as a budget and a timeline are set. And it’s in the recovery process that project sponsors need to listen to stakeholder voices and assess their needs going forward, notes Flynn.

“We wouldn’t do recovery programming without having made an assessment and an analysis of that assessment,” she says. “There should be much more beneficiary communication for the recovery phase, where effects are longer term. It’s incredibly important to be flexible and agile in choosing what we do and in aligning what beneficiaries want us to do. Communication with beneficiaries is critical.”

After disaster

Proper debriefing is an extremely important phase following any disaster situation, and this is the area where change management can assist the most, says Smithson: “Project managers can learn from the power of after action reviews, the importance of adult learning and looking back and learning from experience.”

The process needs to be as frank and transparent as possible for all parties to benefit and for that benefit to be carried forward, she believes.

“A lot of project managers and disaster managers are skilled at [debriefing], but many change managers have very high quality facilitation skills that enable those kinds of conversations to take place in a blame-free atmosphere,” says Smithson.

“There’s a real art to creating an environment where everyone takes responsibility but no one’s pointing the finger, and facilitating a workshop so that people are really heard and uncomfortable issues are brought out into the open, talked about and dealt with.”

She adds that change managers have a lot to offer disaster managers in the implementation and reinforcement of change, particularly in the after action review where parties seek lessons and identify what they might do differently next time.

This echoes how Flynn describes disaster management, as a cycle that involves feeding lessons learned into future disaster management plans. “Essentially we see disaster management as being a holistic and integrated process,” she says. “If you think of a project life cycle, we do the same with disaster management: we start with preparedness, response, recovery, and recovery will go into preparedness for the next disaster.”

Disaster management is not so different from project management. Stakeholder buy-in, adequate planning and an understanding of risk factors are the top three success factors in a disaster project, and while tight timeframes may affect project execution, experienced and agile project managers are generally well-equipped to deal with the additional pressure.

The key is the solid foundation of project management skills and methods, according to Flynn, Campbell and Smithson, who all believe that project management methods remain constant when dealing with disaster situations. While those situations may have their own unique challenges, don’t all projects?

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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