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Project management at the speed of thought

Chris Kinsville-Heyne
May 19, 2011

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances”—Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist (c 490 BC).

I would have liked to have sat down with Sun, say, over a coffee, and had a chat about how he saw life. The endless pithy sayings would probably wear a bit thin by the second espresso; it would be like asking advice from your older, more successful brother. You know the good stuff is in there, you just have to get through all that inscrutable gloating.

However, and Sun may agree, one thing I’ve discovered over the years is this; in time of crisis, never believe anything you hear and only half of what you actually see. In fact, that rule firmly applies to the Chinese definition of ‘crisis’. Everyone knows that one, I hear you say, it means ‘opportunity’, doesn’t it?

I’m glad you asked, because no, it doesn’t. According to a learned mind at the University of Pennsylvania, it means ‘decision point’. And that brings two points home: one, we shouldn’t believe everything we read, and two, a crisis is about making decisions.

In order to get a better view of the methods we need to consider, let’s have a look at the ‘variety of circumstances’ to which my friend Sun refers.

US President Barack Obama has had a few crises to deal with upon walking through the door of the most famous address in the USA. Let’s list a few: energy, automobile, financial, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, swine flu and Iran. And, here’s the good bit, he knew the majority of these were coming. It’s the good bit for one reason: he could prepare for them. I can guarantee you one thing, he would have had a team around him to test his responses and get him up to speed.

On the subject of speed, it’s the one thing with which organisations have the most problems, that is, making the jump from normal working practices to the fast lane world of a crisis. In the world of crisis communicators and management we call it ‘moving from slow-time thinking to quick-time doing’. Catchy, eh?

Before we make that jump to light speed, there are a few things we need to have in place, with people at the top of my list. The people you have around you must be able to match your speed of thought, and equally, you need to be able to keep up with them.

For the next couple on the list I choose flexibility and a willingness to adapt. If your team can only think of one plan, and that plan falls at the first hurdle, then what? Do you stand there wringing your hands saying, ‘but that plan should have worked?’ Well, it didn’t. Get over it—fast—and come up with plan B. While you’re about it, plans C, D, E and F might be useful too. Alternatives are always welcome in my crisis control room.

How about experience? I don’t mean to the extent of employing the person who solved world hunger (by the way, if someone claims that in your team, check their CV, as I’m pretty sure it’s still a problem), I mean people who have worked through the crisis management and communications plan, you know, the one that has been gathering dust on your bookshelf from the first day it was printed.

Personally, I like crisis plans. They point people in the right direction and scare the hell out of them at the same time. Who says we can’t multi-task?

Crisis in practice

As an example, let’s look at how London first followed their own crisis plan during the London Bombings on 7/7 in 2005. The team that initiates the plan and coordinates all emergency services, military, police and so forth is called COBR (COBRA), which is named after where they meet, the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, based in Whitehall, Central London. The person who heads the team changes, depending on what type of crisis the country is dealing with.

When the first bombs went off at 8:45am that morning, there was a lot of confusion about what was happening. A spokesperson for the British Transport Police only added to that confusion when he offered a multiple choice explanation saying it was “either a power surge, a collision between two trains or a power cable exploding”. Brilliant, we could pick our own disaster.

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Chris Kinsville-Heyne
Chris Kinsville-Heyne is managing director of C3i Strategic Solutions, a media, crisis communication and management training company. He is also a former NATO spokesperson.
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