Recently, I was part of a volunteer construction project. We were erecting a five thousand square foot building in just a matter of seven days. Hundreds of people were investing their time and resources in the project, and plenty of preliminary work had been done to the property and parking lot prior to the final push. To construct a building and be ready for final inspection in seven days is a remarkable feat in and of itself; if you also consider the fact that very few were construction professionals, it is amazing.
Three primary volunteers ran the project. They called the shots, made decisions, and got things done. The materials showed up on site, food was catered in, and communications were well coordinated and clear. There was certainly a tremendous amount of work done behind the scenes in preparation for the project, but when it came to finally being onsite and getting the project underway, it didn’t look like they had too much to do. We’re all familiar with the expression that perception is reality; well, the perception was that these three volunteers just walked around, drank coffee, and chatted with people.
That was, until the storm came.
Everyone arrived to the construction site on Sunday morning, just as they had for the previous two days. The forecast showed clear skies, and everyone expected to have a productive day. Unfortunately, the sprinkles started about 10:00 a.m., and when the skies opened up and a downpour of Noah-esque proportions came down, hundreds of volunteers scurried to their respective work tents. And it wasn’t just rain; the deluge of water was soon accompanied by a commensurate amount of strong winds, dangerously close lightning bolts, and cracks of thunder that took everyone by surprise.
This is when the three main project management volunteers that appeared to be just walking around and drinking coffee went into full swing. They immediately came onto the public address system and ordered everyone into the shell of the building that had just been framed, walled and roofed. They instructed everyone to move along in an orderly fashion, and to find a safe location inside to stand. We were asked to watch out for the hazards that lay on the ground such as loose tools, wires, conduit, and duct work that was dropped by volunteers scrambling for safety.
Because of the lightning being a real threat to safety in an unfinished building, everyone was told to move away from the studded walls and not to touch anything metallic. The wind continued to howl, blowing the rain into open spaces where the windows and doors had not yet been installed.
They stayed on the intercom system to steward everyone through the process, and once everyone was safely in the building, continued to keep everyone calm by giving directions about the rest of the morning. They informed everyone that lunch would not be served that day, and that any volunteers who had been assigned work on the exterior of the building could go home as soon as the storm subsided and visibility was clear. Groups in charge of interior projects were asked to stay, in order to finish up work that needed to be completed for an inspection the next day.
Clearly, these three project managers were not just walking around and drinking coffee. I felt a good deal of comfort being managed by them during a potentially chaotic and unsettling circumstance, and many others felt the same way. I reflected on exactly what they did during the crisis, so that I would be as equally prepared should the same type of circumstance happen to me in my project management career. Here’s what I came up with…
Be Effective During Crisis
- They Were Decisive – This trio of volunteer project managers was decisive, not just individually, but as a group. They knew they had a lot of tough decisions to make that would not be popular with everyone. They also knew that they were the only ones that were in a position to make these decisions. For example, it certainly didn’t make a lot of people happy to hear that lunch wouldn’t be served that day. But, they knew that it was too dangerous for the kitchen workers to be out in these extreme elements. So, they made the call to cancel food service. They also had to make the tough decision to send half of the crew home. For a project with such ambitious goals and the pressure of an immediate deadline, it was not an easy call to make. We were already running behind, but they knew that the landscape and areas around the project were too muddy and mucky to continue to work in, and that they would have to figure out a way to make up the time later. Whether or not their decisions were right or wrong, they made them.
- They Were Visible – If the project managers weren’t making their rounds with coffee cups in hand, they were most likely in the nice air-conditioned trailer chatting with each other. That was, until the crisis of the unexpected storm hit. Then, they were immediately front and center. They walked around the site in the rain, making sure that everyone was out of the elements. They made sure people weren’t stranded in their cars, and even knocked on doors of the portable toilets. When everyone had been assembled together, they stood as a group in front, showing a united front that was very much appreciated by the hundreds of volunteers that needed information and direction.
- They Were Non-Ambiguous – It’s never a good thing if someone next to you has to ask, “What did he say?” during a crisis on any project. These three team members left nothing to the imagination; they were incredibly precise, specific, crisp, comprehensive and clear in their direction. Everyone knew exactly what was expected of them, what they were to do, who was to go, and who was to stay. They used an economy of words to make sure their point was made. They also remained in front of the crowd until the crisis abated in order to answer any questions that remained.
- They Were Action-Oriented – Finally, they got people back to work. Once everything was under control, they met with all the department heads and put their teams back to work immediately. Otherwise, they would risk not being ready to pass inspection.
Perception is reality; my perception of them changed into a very different reality once the crisis passed. I knew we were in good hands and everything was under control. To have that level of confidence in a project manager is not only reassuring, it is empowering.
If you, too, can be decisive, visible, non-ambiguous, and action-oriented when the going gets tough on a project, your team will appreciate your leadership in tumultuous times.