In business, as in life, not everything will go according to our perfect plan. The popular TV series ‘Scandal’, inspired by a real-life crisis management professional, highlights the complexity and chaos of managing unthinkable, high profile political crises, in dramatic and sensationalized fashion. The main character, Olivia Pope, owner of a crisis management firm, is constantly pushed to the edge of her sanity as she somehow handles major scandals in her professional and personal life. Although the world of ‘Scandal’ is make-believe, we can gain some valuable insights about effective project management from the successful show.
Here are 10 lessons Scandal can teach us about project management:
- Crisis Management is a form of Project Management – If the unthinkable should happen during a project that you’re managing, all the principles and strategies of project management apply to handling the crisis, but at an accelerated pace. Communication, Risk Analysis and Management, Deliverable Management, and Schedule Management are just a few of the tools you will want to kick into full-force during a crisis.
- Anticipate and plan ahead – This strategy should be employed before and after a crisis occurs. Risk Planning should be addressed in the early planning phase of your project so you are better prepared when risks do occur. Regardless of how experienced you are as a project manager, every project should have a plan for the unexpected. This plan could simply consist of identifying and documenting what could go wrong and the initial mitigating procedures to follow for each possibility. After a crisis occurs it’s critical to plan for the worst possible outcome while, at the same time, mitigating as much damage as possible.
- Stay attuned to early signs of trouble – When you see early warning signs in your project don’t ignore them, hoping they will go away – they won’t. Be aware of ongoing customer, stakeholder or team member complaints, gossip, high turnover in the project, and resistance to change. If this behavior persists, take action right away. Prevention is the best crisis management strategy!
- Perform a current state analysis – Quickly assess the situation and your environment. First, ascertain the level and degree of damage and opportunities by conducting an internal and external environmental scan. Get feedback from as many sources as you can. Also, identify all of the stakeholders. Performing this type of analysis will help determine the components of the crisis management plan.
- Develop the project scope – What’s the end game? In other words, what is the desired outcome of the crisis management efforts and interventions? Is it realistic based on budget, degree of damage and other constraints? Make sure that your project sponsors are clear about the scope and that you have their full buy-in and approval.
- Assemble your project team – During a more serious crisis, we strongly advise you to consider using the professional services of an expert Project (crisis) Manager. An external expert is not emotionally or personally connected to the situation and will skillfully make decisions based on the goals and what’s in the best interest of the client. If you are the Project Manager, be sure you keep company with a competent and reliable team – your “Gladiators” who understand the need to bounce into effective and immediate action. Each project team member must be 100% clear about their specific role, expectations and the project scope.
- Develop a project plan to address the crisis – The crisis management project plan consists of a crisis communication methodology, schedules and milestones, resource allocation, cost estimates, approvals process for changes, etc.
- Document everything – Need we say more? Well, perhaps just a bit more. Fully and carefully document every discussion, approval, decision and communication. It’s human nature, especially in a crisis, to forget or remember things differently. Appropriate documentation is paramount to achieving the best possible outcome and avoiding conflicts.
- Control the message(s) immediately – Malicious rumors and gossip will take control and ruin your reputation and business if you don’t quickly and comprehensively communicate your factual, honest message so that it stays in the front of everyone’s mind. This won’t stop the rumor and gossip, but it will provide facts and the truth. This minimizes the need for others to ‘fill in the blanks’ about what has or is occurring.
- Remain calm and professional – Seasoned project managers know that their demeanor, attitude and behavior set the tone for how smoothly (or roughly) a project will flow. Frantic, panicked and impulsive behavior always brings more harm than good (including more crises). Stay composed, focused on the goal, follow the plan of action and revise the plan if the situation warrants.
Some of the major project management crises in recent US history include the New York City’s CityTime payroll system project, roll out of the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare.gov website and the Yahoo CEO Vetting process. Do any others come to mind for you? How well do you think these crises were managed?
Chrystal Richardson is Managing Partner of CE Wilson Consulting, a project management and business efficiency consulting firm that has managed projects for technology, mining, medical and manufacturing clients since 2001.