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Managing projects in extreme environments

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There have been two seismic events in the world of emergency and humanitarian response (so far) this year, each quite different, yet posing many of the same challenges for those mobilised to respond.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was the first, leading at least 7.7 million people (by the UN’s estimate) to be displaced, and resulting in death and destruction on a scale unseen in Europe since the Second World War. The second was the flooding in Pakistan, which began at the end of August. It has been widely reported that as many as 33 million people were displaced in this case, as around one-third of the country was submerged by melting glaciers and record monsoon rains.

What has this got to do with project management, you may ask? The simple fact is that the many organisations – including NGOs, charities, government departments, UN agencies and militaries – that are on the front line to alleviate this human misery are all managing projects: identifying what needs to be done and achieving it within a set of budgetary and time constraints.

Adaptive approach

But how does this differ from the approach to project management that is familiar from IT development projects, major construction programmes or other mainstream endeavours in the world of commerce and public services? That’s what I was tasked by APM to find out in a new thought leadership report, Managing Projects in Post-Conflict and Disaster Zones. Are there lessons from these extreme situations that could be applied in other ‘uncertain environments’?

The simple answer to the question is that project management in emergencies must be much more flexible and responsive than its counterpart in the regular office environment. In the case of most emergencies, there is little or no warning that an event – whether it be a flood, an earthquake or a conflict – is going to happen. So advance planning, in detail at least, is not really an option.

It is of course possible to predict that some events will happen with a degree of frequency and regularity – hurricanes in the Caribbean, for example – but that doesn’t mean you know where and when they will happen.

And it’s also possible to plan in a generic sense for many humanitarian disasters. Emergency shelter and drinking water will almost always be needed, for example, as well as food, medicine and hygiene products. These things can to some extent be warehoused as a contingency measure. What you don’t know is the scale of supplies needed or the exact locations.

A continuously evolving picture

So, planning often only starts in detail once the emergency is underway, and that triggers a second challenge. Jo de Serrano, Chief Executive of NGO RedR, which provides training and capacity-building for humanitarian emergencies, points out that these are “operating environments where you're not necessarily sure of what your baseline is” and that “gathering that information at the start can be a challenge”

Lt Col Langley Sharp, who ran the Centre for Army Leadership, echoes this comment, pointing out that uncertain environments are also about not having certainty over the outcome. The consequence is that those who are responding need to be continuously trying to update the picture on the ground and to re-draw their plan accordingly.

Clearly, there’s also an urgency that doesn’t lend itself to a prolonged planning phase. When lives are at stake the imperative may be to take immediate action, whether or not it has been fully approved or mandated.

The ad hoc nature of these projects extends to the budget. That money only becomes available once a disaster has occurred is a common complaint. As John Cropper, founder of Pyramid Learning and former Global Head of Project Management for Oxfam GB put it rather bluntly, in the case of famine: “The people on the ground know when it's coming, the communities know it's coming and the NGOs know when it's coming, but there is not enough money to do much about it. .” And it may be necessary to bid for funding on a competitive basis.

The need for agility

What all this means is that a sequential approach to project management in an emergency is very unlikely to be appropriate. If you have a limited picture of the facts, your budget is not fixed in advance and you don’t have the luxury of an extended timetable, then a more  agile approach characterised by short bursts of activity – or sprints – and planning that takes place in consecutive waves rather that in one go, becomes far more suitable.

Read the full report Managing Projects in Post-Conflict and Disaster Zones here


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