IPMA International Project Management Association
22 May 2020 / 10:00

IPMA Best Practices: Comparing Crisis and Project Management

As you might know, in The Netherlands we have an ‘intelligent’ lockdown. Our chair asked me if there were commonalities in project and crisis management. As a board member for research and education, I will answer this research-based.
The IPMA World Congress 2014 featured a UN speaker illustrating differences. In crisis there is a shortage in everything, everything needs to be Agile, while a project follows the plan. Most of us know projects suffer shortages as well, like budget, timely available personnel and quite often management support. Still, it feels different.
Nicoline Mulder wrote a research-based approach for chaordic project management: Value-Based Project management. I am using her theories to evaluate the Dutch government approach. She describes eleven interventions to reach success.

“Only together we can succeed”
The first three are about creating values together, a common goal and a vision on how. The Dutch government spend a lot of effort into this. With weekly press conferences and catchy slogans like ‘Health first’ and ‘only together we can succeed’ (translated). The higher purpose – at first – seemed to be the higher goal. The Dutch government kept on stressing the intelligence in the measurements, the people needed to circumvent together that a full lockdown was necessary. In this, the government follows the ideas of Nicoline.
The fourth intervention is an incremental approach. From the beginning on the Dutch government made clear: a lot of information is missing. New information would lead to adaptations. Nothing would be certain. Clearly, many stakeholders found this stressful. Political factions, but also parents, bars and schools.
Work with trust from all parties (5). In the beginning, the government was trusted. Almost all followed the rules (when you know the Dutch, you know how amazing this is). But cracks appeared as well. Fines were instated, illustrating that we do not really trust citizens. Political factions adhere to own interests. Experts disagree and not everyone trusts everything. Primary and secondary schools closed, based on the pressure by parents and teachers, not trusting experts that risk would be minimal. Nursing homes protesting against visiting restrictions – communicating a different vision (quality of life instead of prolonging life). A midterm press conference question showed these cracks, ‘we have been good, can’t we get more manoeuvre space?’, while nothing changed.

A common goal?
Use transformational leadership (6). This is a tricky one. Transformation to what? The government called it ‘the new normal’. Alternatively, is it in the long-run transformation back to the old? Diverging visions are shown, and everyone has a hobbyhorse: more attention to animal welfare, environmental farming, emission-free transport, less globalization etc. Even shutting the soccer competition proved food for lengthy discussions and court rulings.
Use self-organizing (7). A few weeks into the crisis an appeal for plans came: create solutions for a social distance society (in the Dutch case 1.5 meters). Everyone started: bars, restaurants, fitness schools etc. You can imagine the disappointment when plans were hardly looked at or dismissed. An expectation was created which could not be fulfilled. Self-organizing is only possible when management (in this case the government) creates the conditions and then supports bottom-up initiatives. Asking for plans and then ignoring them is the opposite of how it should be. Although asking for plans is supporting creativity (8), the handling should be better.
A real deficit is user participation (9) and stakeholder dialogue (10). Who is the user? We need a higher goal and we don’t know that one. Is it protecting the weak, as soon as possible out of the crisis, getting rid of the virus, ..? Health is at the table with the government. Is health the user? If so, the higher goal is to relieve healthcare pressure. In project management terms health is not a user, but a supplier. Has to be incorporated nonetheless, but it is not a user. Stakeholders, not present voice their concerns about the missing dialogue in the press.
Work result-oriented whenever possible (11). Short-term results were clear. Now they are not anymore.

For short
The theory of Nicoline Mulder provides a good basis for analyzing the approach. Crisis and project management look alike. Crisis management can benefit from insights project management has. The analysis shows points for improvement: higher goal and user participation.

Written by: Steven Nijhuis, Board Member IPMA-NL for Education and Research.
A special thanks to Nicoline Mulder – for her feedback on the first draft.


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