Is it urgent? Really? Really urgent?

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I get my emails to others read by heading them “not urgent”. I guarantee these are read first. Why? Because the word ‘urgent’ is over-used. 

So what is a really urgent project?

Restoring the East Coast Main Line after major destruction of track, power and signalling was surely an urgent project. And building a temporary rail station north of the river through Workington to enable a train service connect with the centre of the town after flooding had destroyed the road bridges. 

Similarly temporary beams to restore the only bridge connecting Arnhem Land with the rest of northern Australia, a temporary power supply to central Auckland and many repair jobs such as restoring and strengthening river banks against surge water levels. Or rather differently, bidding in time to mount a new TV service after the surprise failure of others. Or at the extreme, sifting and removing 1.6 m tons of dangerous rubble of the Manhattan 9/11 ‘pile’ to try to rescue survivors and then find mortal remains. Urgent meant that cost did not govern decisions. The financial and social value to be delivered from the work was overwhelmingly greater. 

We have had access to twelve such projects. 

  • All were models of successful project management. 
  • Vertical project teams were formed, embracing executive authority, expertise and stakeholders. 
  • Time was taken to plan. 
  • Expertise led. 
  • Contacts from planning for emergencies speeded cooperation. 
  • Meetings were decisive. 
  • Ready resources were adapted to needs. 
  • Transitions back to normal were planned. 
  • Keeping personal records helped thinking. 
  • And lessons agreed on preparing for future surprises. 

All good. But which of these are essential to urgent projects? There must be sustained agreement on what may be spent for speed. Must there be a single team combining power and all interests? Must urgent work be managed as a project? Need action await thinking? Cannot each party proceed with action to suit themselves? Should procedures control the selection of resources? And aren’t all projects unique so that others’ lessons will only delay us? Our conclusions come from twelve quite different but all successful cases. 

What have others learned from suddenly urgent and unexpected projects?


Stephen Wearne won the Sir Monty Finniston Award in 2005 and is co-author of Managing the Urgent and Unexpected - Twelve Project Cases and a Commentary published by Gower.

APM members can claim exclusive discounts on Managing the Urgent and Unexpected and a range of Gower titles, click here for more details.

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Posted by Stephen Wearne on 26th Mar 2015

About the Author
Project Management Research & Resources Group, University of Manchester. He was formerly employed in the engineering, construction and project management of large water power and nuclear power projects in the UK, South America and Japan. He is Emeritus Professor of Technological Management, University of Bradford. He was Founder Chairman of the UK Engineering Project Management Forum. Brennan Medal, Institution of Chemical Engineers. Garth Watson Medal, Institution of Civil Engineers. Sir Monty Finniston Award, UK Association for Project Management.

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