Project managers used to be judged by how well they responded to a crisis – now they are judged by how well they anticipate one, writes Liam Dillon

Project and programme managers used to be judged by how well they responded to a crisis – now they are judged by how well they anticipate one. In a world with increasing uncertainty lies a dire need to reframe leadership competencies.

There is a need for a resilient and positive mindset in the world of project and programme management. Change is even more difficult in this environment where conflict within the organisation is almost inevitable.

So the current-day project and programme manager challenges often rely on the development and management of the three Cs:
• Anticipation and reaction to a crisis;
• The management and approach to change;
• The dealing and expectation of conflict.

Crisis, change and conflict can happen at any time, in any situation. Even if you think you have all your bases covered, guess again. It can come in all shapes, sizes, degrees and from many angles – from natural disasters, technical problems, internal corporate issues and non-compliance with contract.

They can happen at the drop of a hat and be very devastating to any project and/or programme manager if not managed properly. Regardless of the type or size of crisis, change and conflict, it is important to effectively plan and manage for them in the event of one happening and, also, for during such a crisis or change.

Minimise crises by maximising solutions

This proactive steps (known as risk management) minimises the shock and stress of the situation and effectively shows the true qualities of any project manager. Let us view this a different way, the project/programme managers mindset should be to minimise crises by maximising solutions.

If you agree, why not step back from the project detail by accepting that the plan is the non-essential, it is dealing with the change within it. Moving forward means a positive attitude and acceptance of what lies ahead. Embrace and be-friend the 3’C’s and you will have made a friend for life. To do this try and attempt to make the situation visible and focus on four key questions.

This is known as critical thinking and the questions to focus on are:
• Separate the people from the problem;
• Focus on interests, not positions;
• Before trying to reach agreement, invent options for mutual gain;
• Use objective criteria when possible.

The key to dealing with these issues is to try ask the question “Why?” and then state a position. Once the position is stated, then attempt to think of “How”? and this is essentially the response.

What I have described here is the ad-hoc way of dealing with conflict. The more proactive and established method is a good risk management process.

One of the fundamental steps in trying to manage conflict, crisis or change is risk management. We try to manage risk through a proactive series of methods. Depending on the type of project you are involved with you could have several different risk management models to consider as the project manager.

Accepting responsibility for your decision

However, the over-riding issue regarding any risk management model that you undertake is are you prepared to make the decision whether to accept or reject the risk and then accept responsibility for your decision. This is a risk model that is accepting the culture of the business but also a risk model that can alert to risk and minimises the conflict and crisis that can ensure from the adverse effect of an unplanned situation.

To display a proactive attitude to risk there are five main factors as displayed by the main diagram.
1. Culture: take the risk culture into account – what can be tolerated and what can’t. Understand the key roles within the project/programmes – who are champions, where is the support coming from?
2. Risk transparency: establish a common vocabulary. Understand the ‘stress points’ and what are you measuring against. Use business-specific scenarios to build simple risk models that we all understand.
3. Ownership and Appetite: look for the level of risk appetite within projects and programmes. Examine the risk capacity for customer-facing versus internal-facing projects. Understand the level of ownership available and how this can dictate the risk strategy.
4. Risk process/decisions: use of consistent risk management process to identify and respond. Use risk information as a basis for decision making. Use an escalation model to communicate/manage risk.
5. Risk governance: understand the management responsibilities of risk across the programme/organisation. Establish an enterprise risk management solution. The question that may well be going through your head right now is – okay, so how do I create a risk management model? Well, hopefully you will find that the following ideas and suggestions will at least get you started on that task.

Risk management modelling is simply one of the tasks you need to do at the planning stage, considering what are likely to be the significant problems in the project and then what can you do to reduce them. The number and complexity of these likely problems will undoubtedly vary according to the size and complexity of the project you are managing.

However, the principles for your risk management model are the same whether you are assessing the risk for somebody injuring themselves on a construction site, or the risk of a global financial crash on the day you launch a new finance facility. So, just how should you create a risk management model?

Whether your risk management model is on one sheet of A4 paper or fills a hard disk on a computer doesn’t matter, the key is how to communicate this model to those that sit around the project/programme. Risk management is not about taking risks to get a job done, it is about planning for those risks and ultimately to avoid situations of conflict/crisis.

Risk is nothing without the ‘buy’ of those that sit around the project/programme table. Once the approach to risk is understood, then you can move on to identifying the measures you can take to prevent the risks actually occurring, or at least reduce the impact of them should they occur. This is the mechanics of doing project risk management.

Liam Dillon is the managing director of Turlon & Associates (, which specialises in consultancy and training in project management; program management; portfolio
management; agile project management; project and program risk management; contract management; and project and program leadership. He holds a master of science degree in project management and holds multiple project and program management accreditations from the Project Management Institute. He has more than 25 years’ professional experience. During that time, he has led some significant global infrastructure projects and programmes for various industries O'RiordanCivilconstruction,project management
Project and programme managers used to be judged by how well they responded to a crisis – now they are judged by how well they anticipate one. In a world with increasing uncertainty lies a dire need to reframe leadership competencies. There is a need for a resilient and positive...