Managing the Urgent, Unexpected [Book Review]
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To be able to tolerate urgent and unexpected projects, they must be rare. It is impossible to sustain a business that moves from one unexpected initiative into another. But we all know this. Stephen Wearne, Keith White-Hunt and Keith White-Hunt have written Managing the Urgent, Unexpected. This book contains case studies and commentary that aims to prepare organisations for these difficult projects.
These lessons are not applicable to all projects or at all levels. They are not intended to help business leaders and PMOs plan for unexpected problems that arise when projects are initiated quickly and need to be completed faster than usual.
Teams required for ‘unexpected work’
Unexpected projects address a problem that was not anticipated in terms of:
Each one of these tasks requires a different kind of team.
Bespoke resources are required when a project is not predictable in its probability or nature. These are teams that have been created specifically for the project.
The authors conclude that augmented resource are needed when a project’s timing is not predictable. These teams are formed partly through the diversion or addition of project team resources. Temporary employees are hired to augment the team.
Teams are formed when a project is large and unexpected. This means that people are moved away from their current projects to form a team for the project.
These team formations are different because the project addresses a need that is directly related to ongoing work. It is easy to divert resources from other projects. If the project is addressing a new problem, the resources you have available for the work are not sufficient. You will need to hire them.
Still works: The devolved hierarchy
I am glad that the command-and-control style of leadership has ended. It doesn’t fit with my leadership style. However, I thought it would be helpful to have a clear leader who could provide direction and control in times of crisis. This is not true.
The authors provide examples and research to show that local, devolved decision making is better than ever, even when there are many unknowns and an urgent need to respond. They discuss the military’s approach to emergency services and write:
Management literature uses the term ’empowerment’ to describe the principle that an individual or group has the authority to respond to a situation. Managers in Western culture are expected to delegate authority, remain distant and inspect primarily how authority is used without ‘interfering with’ what is being decided.
This means that it is the people on the ground that have the best understanding of the situation and the best ability to respond to rapidly changing situations.
Speed is key in a crisis
These projects often place time as the most important factor, and cost as a secondary consideration. The book provides a detailed explanation of how to balance the costs of working faster than usual with the question of “how much additional cost should we incur?”. According to the authors, “the value of delivering work was agreed to be overwhelmingly greater that the likely extra cost to working as fast and as efficiently as possible.”
Other themes that can lead to success
What other factors make it possible to manage an urgent or unexpected project, besides speed? They draw some insightful conclusions from their case studies about what made these projects successful. They also provided advice on how to make your project a success.