Episode 41: “How to manage unexpected events in projects” with Gary Straw

In this episode Gary Straw, author of Understanding Project Management shares some tips on how to manage unexpected events in projects and how this compares with Risk Management.

Gary is the author of Understanding Project Management and he has a background in various roles in a multinational organizations, including marketing, strategic planning quality improvement activities, information systems. He has also delivered Project Management courses in England and Russia.

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Excerpts from “How to manage unexpected events in projects”

Course style, main topics, style of delivery

One of the things that I try to do is bring those areas of practice to real life in any room. There are experienced and capable people in the room, who know a lot about their projects already even if they’re not down as people involved directly in projects. It’s not always the obvious areas that cause people difficulties. Students will often submit an assignment with topics and small details not covered in significant depth in class, which shows a thought about the scenario they’re finding difficult.

Covering the hard skills, soft skills, or both
Straw’s courses are structured around the hard skills–the things we’d traditionally see in a project management course. He also likes to visit the soft skills areas like management, leadership, and consider the cultural dimensions/ other aspects, which are all part of dealing with projects. It’s a blend between the two that helps us succeed. Project management is an integrated discipline. It’s fusion of understanding the persons we’re working with, the particular challenges, the psychological aspects; it’s a whole host.

Delivering a project management course to younger students can be difficult. Some of the most important things are what we pick up in life. These aspects of project management are often difficult to characterise until they are experienced. The soft skills are often the difference between success and failure. We can build a beautiful plan, but it’s in the delivery, adjustments, and response where we get our experiences.

Straw’s definition of unexpected events and how it’s different from risk management

Uncertainty, risk, and unexpected. Just the words themselves are used to describe in particular ways. These words are often used interchangeably.

If you look up the definition of “uncertainty,” it’s concerned with doubtfulness, hesitation, and lack of certainty. The definition of “risk” often has a more negative feeling—loss, injury, or danger.

We often account for and deal with uncertainty by going through fairly potentially extensive risk management processes. The unexpected part or event often emerges outside our frame of thinking as a probability that’s unlikely and has a high impact. It could be something that we’re not ready for—the unknowns—or possible events invisible to the project team. That’s when the risk management may be of no help at all. Compared with no unknowns, so the risk management process can reduce the number of occurrences, but not all. We have a spectrum of activities that we can control, but there will be things, which occur outside our standard frame.

One thing to consider is that some organizations or businesses exist especially to deal with what we regard as the “unexpected event.” For people, an organization involved in disaster relief or responding to an unexpected event that will occur at some point. The difficulty in this is, it’s unexpected to me entirely, and it’s not as unexpected to you. There’s a scale. Some things are significant surprises that we can experience in any of our projects anywhere, anytime.

It is challenging to anticipate the unexpected because by definition it’s unexpected. The way I tend to look at this is, I look back on the situations I faced in my own experience, we can learn from others, we can find out how to do something, how to deal with unexpected events because we’re better at dealing with the particular area in which this will arise.

After a stressful situation, we can ask ourselves: Did I do the right thing? Was that the right way to approach the problem? Would I do it like that again? We don’t know because we might not encounter the same experience in the future. It’s arming ourselves with how we deal with the unexpected and other people. It’s part of a team where we can find the right skills at short notice.

Beforehand, we could’ve looked at this through a risk management lens and all of the potentialities, but it may not have shown up. We can try hard to think of all the potential problems that will arise, but never get them all.

Risk information is particularly valuable if we consider the implications for the particular activity. We can go as far as we can, but we have to accept that there will be occasions when we have to deal with something that’s out of that frame of reference. The other area we could look at is particular ways that people deal with unexpected events to provide a better basis for future incidents.

Project management for me is possibly the most integrative area that I would work in. As we combine the different areas of specialism or analysis, we become better at dealing with all kinds of things. We’re accumulating all sorts of skills, and one of those is about the relationship repertoire we have with the team and recognizing that all people are different in how they handle situations.

For me, I can deal with an unexpected event like this, but at the time the impact is potentially high, and it causes a lot of stress. What I’ve noticed is that some of the people that I’ve worked with in the past are good at detaching themselves from the problem. They can deal with it and isolate it; then they can carry onto other things at the same time. Some people are good at dealing with projects as they emerge. If there is balance in the team and their skills, and we’re aware of our reactions, then we might be able to deal with an unexpected event better—the more experience we get, the more we see.

Straw’s “Tennis Theory”

In a tennis match, each player is always deciding their body shape, racket positioning, anticipating the next move, and choosing their shots. They have fast reaction speeds, and some players make this look easy.

This type of scenario incorporates decision-making, the use of developed skills and knowledge. Each player is likely to be considering the introduction of an unexpected event to win the points.

What I see in that type of scenario is that it’s entirely bound. It takes place within a finite number of games, external factors limited. We can remove weather from that by running the game indoors, so the unexpected external events are minimised. The unexpected part is part of the sport. It’s part of the competition that we as human beings love. We love that competition and the likelihood that we don’t know who’s going to win next.

In project management, we don’t like that feeling of the unexpected unless it provides a chance to do things better. Certainty, uncertainty, risk, unexpected—can be perceived as negative, but positive as well.

In sports and other situations, we’ll see organisations responding to an unexpected event by doing something innovative. They realise that they can serve a different stakeholder group and audience as a win-win out of it. While we see this as something negative, it can be very positive.

Show Notes

Connect with Gary Straw on LinkedIn here
Find out more about his Book “Understanding Project Management” here

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