In a Crisis, Project Managers Are Needed

infamous tragedies remind us that the type of management matters

November 30, 2022 | Helen S. Cooke

crisisThere has always been a distinction between two ways of managing. The first type, operations management, requires managers to be directive and hierarchical to standardize routine organizational functions. The second, project management, requires managers to be more flexible, process-oriented, and able to lead a diverse team in situations that are unfamiliar and evolving. Applying either management approach in the wrong situation can be not only unsuccessful but even catastrophic. It is rare for a manager to be able to perform both well, so executive search firms have traditionally selected distinct job candidates for each role when making a referral to hiring organizations.

The two most familiar contexts for a command-and-control manager are the factory floor (or the shipping warehouses of mail-order companies), as well as occupations that require a standardized response to situations (extinguishing a house fire, for example). The two most familiar contexts for a project manager are developing a strategy for handling a non-routine disruption that is preventing “operations as usual” (such as a shift in the market that changes how products must be delivered) or a self-contained team response to an environmental emergency (such as a hurricane or flood or earthquake).

The person who is best suited to each role is quite different. The operations manager needs to know the accepted and agreed ‘best way’ to get the job done and is given the authority to carry it out by those with executive authority in that organization or context. The project manager needs to know the process by which a partially defined problem should be examined, the steps to go through to get buy-in from the authorities for the solution, and the way to develop and deploy a team to work together, gathering data to confirm progress and revising the strategy accordingly as the team moves toward a solution. Both approaches to management have been familiar in the workforce for decades, but the specific name “project management” was publicized in the business world when the workforce began to shift from large industrial employers to entrepreneurial employers. The Project Management Institute, founded in 1969, sought to specify that project management was a profession, not just an approach to managing. Since that time, the profession has evolved and solidified.

Both operations management and project management exist side by side in the workplace today, but the important distinctions between them are not always well understood. If an operations manager is put in charge of a partially defined project and adopts a command-and-control approach, the diverse team of specialists will resist direction and possibly become contentious if they weren’t given a chance to comprehend and validate the strategy. The project fails. Sometimes a project manager is put into an operations management role, and the experienced workers will challenge every approach if it’s not done the way they were taught. Meanwhile the project manager is bored and unhappy in an inflexible work environment.

If the employer looking for a “new” manager is not aware of the significant difference in strengths and style between the operations manager candidate and the project manager candidate, mismatches occur and hiring is awkward and stressful. When a managerial challenge arises that is out of the new manager’s capability, serious difficulties can result. A manager must be given the authority to make decisions. That is a prerequisite of the manager job. If those decisions are not appropriate to the situation, a catastrophe can occur.

A few examples of “operations manager” approaches to challenges that required a “project manager” mindset include the live shooter intervention in Uvalde, Texas, the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the response to evacuating survivors of Hurricane Katrina. In each case, the operations manager, or person “at the top,” was responsible to identify when a project was out of the ordinary so the on-site team should use project methods instead of “business as usual.” Once that decision is communicated to the entire operations team, the person on site as project manager becomes “captain of the ship,” with authority to assign roles and deploy staff, and change the approach as needed while the situation evolves. In these situations, top management did not identify or communicate that the unusual and dangerous conditions required doing things differently. Because projects must be carried out differently from operations, there is no time for hierarchy, arbitrary permissions, or distrust. Dissimilar teams are quite effective at assigning roles within the team based on individual talents and skills.

The team cannot succeed unless the team members are free to perform at their best. Waiting for decisions to be made at the top disabled the team’s freedom to do what the situation required. The person in authority to lead the response was not identified as the person in charge or was not given full authority to act without approval from the next level of management. The person who was responsible for approving the final approach to the crisis was not aware that their approval was needed or fully informed of the local specifics of the threat. None appeared to be cognizant of the immense consequences of a wrong decision. In all three situations, the disaster and the catastrophe were tragic. They could have been mitigated with the correct assignment of a task force or project leader, and a specified approach to exploring and resolving the impending crisis.

The flexible, “project management” leadership style is too often underprioritized in the context of disaster response, and the consequences are apparent. Before the SARS-2 COVID pandemic, the White House had a special office responsible for handling the potential pandemic of the future. This special program included not only project management talent and experienced personnel, but strategies and resources that could be quickly tapped to contain the threat. The Obama administration left with the office fully functional, but the next administration cut the budget for the office as an “unnecessary” expense. Five months later, the contagion arrived, and the rest is history.

As executives change from one job to another, the transitions are not always being well-managed.

We need to be vigilant that the distinction between an operations “command and control” manager and a team-oriented project manager are well understood. Many lives have been lost by taking outdated approaches when a completely new approach may be needed in evolving circumstances. Organizations should add a category to the budget to set up a method of managing the unexpected and put a seasoned project manager in charge. When a serious challenge arises or an unexpected emergency faces your organization, you will find that a flexible management style – paired with the appropriate expertise and a plan with contingencies – is what’s really needed.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.