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Unleashing the power of surge management

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For the winter 2017 issue of Project, I contributed an article on surge management which is the term I use to refer to the business of both responding to surge events and creating them. Surge events comprise of virtually all natural disasters and a very wide range of events for which humans are responsible, including surge responses to disasters of various kinds — earthquakes, floods, wildfires, conflagrations, terrorist bombings, mass-casualty incidents, crowd-crush events and many others.

In the 2017 article (‘Surging Forward’), I also discussed the relevance of surge management to project managers in all fields; what they can bring to surge management and the opportunities they can take from it — consultation opportunities, for one.

A surge in surge phenomena

In the nearly five years since, surge phenomena themselves have surged and their management has become even more high profile. The exponential surge of generative AI is one example of this. What is hotly debated is how this surge needs to be managed and the likely consequences of its unbridled surging.

And then, of course, we’ve had the coronavirus pandemic, itself a massive surge phenomenon. I take no satisfaction from having predicted a UKV (unidentified killer virus) in my book on surge published three days after the first lockdown. I mention this book only because one of the most striking features of COVID-19 was the use of the word ‘surge’ in media reports on virtually every aspect of the pandemic. There were surges in cases and deaths, of course, but also surges in business closures, insolvencies, furloughed staff, domestic violence, volunteering, gardening and stockpiling, to name but a few.

If you were a project manager in 2020–2021 in just about any setting, you would probably have been exposed to surge effects and managing them with surge responses. One remarkable example of this was the project management of pivotal surges. They were everywhere. Alcohol and perfume manufacturers pivoted rapidly into makers of hand gels. Clothing manufacturers pivoted into mask makers. Through surge project management, exhibition centres pivoted into field hospitals and hospitals quickly reconfigured to isolate COVID wards.

Handling megaprojects

The ubiquitous evocation of both the word ‘surge’ and of surge phenomena in 2020–2021 suggests to me that we may all have been tapping into a common, collective thought-field emerging at a time when our species most needed it. And I don’t mean just to cope with the coronavirus, but to access a common framework for thinking and talking about all mass, high-impact and highly challenging events, including disasters of all kinds. This has huge implications for everyone involved in project management, but especially for anyone responsible for the conception and management of mega-projects.

The world is in desperate need of project managers with the capacities to handle surge projects which are huge in both scope and ambition. We need megaprojects to clean up our oceans at a rapid pace and to mitigate the other perils of climate change. In the future, we’ll need megaprojects to manage both flood —and drought — induced migrations of almost unimaginable magnitude.

In the UK we need megaprojects for clean energy provision, a fit-for-purpose EV charging infrastructure, house building on a gargantuan scale, clearing the NHS backlog of unmet clinical needs and many others.  

In a future article in Project, I will explore what it takes to project manage mega-surge events and how those involved could benefit substantially from pooling the expertise and experience that exists among specialists in a wide range of areas — and the most natural and obvious conceptual framework for understanding and working with complex surge phenomena: surge dynamics.

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