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Perfectly placed: three lessons from hurricane sandy

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We are currently in a dilemma on planet Earth. We are rapidly using up our resources, such as oil and water, much faster than they can be replaced. At the same time our population continues to grow exponentially. We are also seeing the impacts of these changes on our weather systems, biodiversity, global health, financial and socio-economic systems. In many ways, our future on the planet will depend on how well we deal with this emerging global crisis.

Will the answer lie in the development of still to be discovered technologies, or new economic and political systems? No. The answer lies in something we are much more familiar with.

The solution will rest on how effectively we manage this crisis. And fortunately, at the same time that these challenges have been developing, we have also been developing global management practices that can help us address these issues in a coordinated and effective manner.
Expertise such as project management, which we have been using so effectively to exploit the worlds resources, also provides the framework which we can use to turnaround our current situation. From the doom and gloom scenario some are painting, we have the opportunity to use these capabilities to build a sustainable future.

I believe we can achieve this turnaround in one decade, if we successfully apply the management capabilities and expertise we currently possess. However, we must act decisively and quickly. How well are we currently managing the planet at the moment? Wed probably all agree that we could be doing a much better job. Are we applying our best management capabilities to the issues? Wed again probably have to agree we are not doing this very effectively. Our approach to many of these issues is haphazard, uncoordinated and unplanned.

Which is why good project management principles and practice are key in turning around this situation into a well-planned, coordinated and executed approach to dealing with this rapidly emerging global crisis. The beauty of these skills is that, as we know, they are not project or programme specific. These skills can be equally applied to the deployment of a global networking system, as to achieving a sustainable planet.
Project managers around the world have a key role to play in transforming our global situation from the daunting precipice we are currently facing, into a long-term, viable future for us all. How can this be achieved? The best way to understand this is to look at the three key lessons we can learn from the very effective project management of a recent crisis we are all very familiar with: Hurricane Sandy.

Firstly, the warning signs about Hurricane Sandy were recognised. A number of storm fronts were combining to come together into what some refer to as the perfect storm. Similarly, the global situation we currently find ourselves in is not unlike this. We are seeing a number of global crises economic, political, social and environmental all converging to form what is also being referred to as the perfect storm.

We not only have a global financial crisis, we also have a significant population boom, with the worlds inhabitants having trebled in one lifetime, and continuing to grow. This has increased demand for limited resources such as energy, leading to the global energy crisis, which in turn is impacting the cost of food production and distribution. Other limited resources are also being impacted, such as water, our oceans and forests. If this was not enough, we are only beginning to understand the impacts of climate change on our environment. As Hurricane Sandy has reminded us, climate change is no longer a theoretical or computer-modelling exercise it is here now.

Therefore our first lesson from Hurricane Sandy is to recognise and acknowledge these warning signs. Recognition and acceptance that this perfect storm is on the horizon makes project planning and preparation much easier. For this is where project management skills come to the fore. For we can use these skills to take an active role in risk assessment, whatever project or programme we are working on, and developing an effective overall plan to incorporate these issues, and manage them in a coordinated and effective manner. This applies equally to our business and organisational situations, as well as globally.

Once we acknowledge our global position, project management skills again become invaluable in planning a preparation. How do we deploy these skills? In tackling this question, our Hurricane Sandy analogy again becomes useful. The super storm was the result of multiple storm fronts converging. Our global situation is similar. As we have also seen, all of the issues we are facing are interconnected and also converging. We therefore need a project plan that tackles all of these issues in a globally coordinated manner. Just as different organisations and political parties worked together to build and implement a coordinated approach to tackling Hurricane Sandy so too do we need to put aside national and political agendas and build a global approach to tackling our current crisis. As Winston Churchill once sad: Fail to plan, plan to fail. With only one planet, we cannot afford to fail.

As we approach our global situation in this manner, our overall objective also becomes clear. We not only need to start using our project and programme management capabilities to tackle the current crisis, but as importantly, to work towards building a sustainable world beyond the current situation. We need to think global, act local. Project managers therefore have a key role to play in delivering these changes, in everything from how specific projects are run, to an overall contribution to our global sustainability objective.

Plan for the Planet has therefore been structured to provide frameworks and templates that can be applied to any project or programme: local, national, or global; and business, government or community. And just as project management made a key contribution to the information revolution which has driven global changes to the way we think, interact, and do business project managers have the opportunity play an equally significant role in the sustainability revolution.

It is important at this point to note that there is one key difference between the information revolution and the sustainability revolution. The information revolution was in many ways a nice to have change in the way we do things. We are enjoying our iPads and instant access to information. However, we would have survived if this revolution hadnt occurred, whereas the sustainability revolution is a must have. And just as with Hurricane Sandy, we need to heed the warnings, to listen, plan and prepare. But most importantly, we need to act now.

Although this may appear obvious, we do not always act together in this way. The success in the management of Hurricane Sandy was good planning, preparation, and pre-emptive action. Yet how many times have project managers been called into crisis situations, where it is clear there is no project plan, no coordination, and no overall objective. The approach to Hurricane Katrina highlighted this. The warning signs were there, however planning, preparation and action largely came after the crisis had occurred and some say, simply too late. Similarly the painful reality is that if we look at even one of the current global crisis situations we are facing, such as climate change, we see how ineffective we can be at taking real action if we get caught in the analysis paralysis scenario, or do not work together due to partisan interests.

The perfect storm train of events we have unleashed with unrestrained population growth, the energy and financial crisis and climate changes will not reverse overnight. However, these issues can be prepared for, and successfully overcome, using the same project management principles and practice that made the difference between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Can we achieve this on a global scale? The simple answer is: Yes we can. In fact weve already achieved this following the devastation of the Second World War with the Marshall Plan. Using a great example of project and programme management capabilities applied on a global scale, our parents and grandparents successfully rebuilt a world they could be proud to hand to us.

We are the beneficiaries of this foresight, planning and good management. Now the responsibility rests with our generation. Whether Baby Boomer, Generation X, Y or Z, whether in developing countries or developed, politically left or right, whatever our religious affiliation, we have the opportunity to work together to address the global crisis situation we find ourselves in. Taking action now, in whatever position we occupy, is therefore the key.
Each of us faces a choice. We can continue as if nothing is happening, under the illusion that there is no danger, no crisis. We can continue working and living business as usual and face the devastation of a Hurricane Katrina scenario on a global scale. Or we can learn the lessons from the successful project management of Hurricane Sandy. Recognise the warning signs that are all around us, plan and prepare. But most importantly act now, and manage going forward, using the same skills that we have been able to use to build so much that we now enjoy.

Our generation therefore has the unique opportunity to turn the danger and crisis of the global perfect storm, into the perfect opportunity to build a sustainable world. Hurricane Sandy might just have been the wake-up call we needed. But only if we learn the lessons it taught us about good project management and the application of these skills to the global challenges we face. Project and programme managers around the world therefore have a critical role to play in the emerging sustainability revolution, and also an exciting opportunity to step up to the challenge. 

This article first appeared in Project magazine. APM members can read all feature articles from Project magazine over recent years by accessing the Project magazine archive.

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