How to turn a crisis into a project management and leadership opportunity

Credit: Aaron Escobar via Wikimedia Commons

In our normal routines, managers attempt to plan every detail of a project to ensure success. Life, on the other hand, is always interfering with that plan and presents us with an unlimited supply of disasters and the occasional crisis. This is my story of a small, natural disaster and how one neighborhood prevailed.

There was nothing unusual about the drive home. It had been a long, hot day but the temperature had recently dropped several degrees because of an afternoon storm. I was down to my last turn before reaching my street when I noticed a few cars stopped ahead. Apparently, that afternoon storm had been much stronger than I realized as it managed to knock some large trees all the way across the road. We weren’t going anywhere.

Decision time

I believe all of us are bombarded with these situations from time to time. They may show themselves in the form of a crisis at work (the data center has lost power) or something less significant at home (the washing machine won’t drain). The way that we manage these situations, big or small, are all opportunities to refine our skills, while learning lessons so that we can do better the next time.

My house was only about 200-feet past the tree. I had options. I could park my car alongside the road, go home, and enjoy my life until the situation resolved itself. However, I chose to grab my chainsaw and see how I could help. Nobody else had taken the lead so I took it upon myself to form a plan: start small, cut enough for a car to pass, move all the branches to the side of the road, and make it easy for the professionals (Department of Transportation) to do their part later.


It’s an interesting phenomenon that disasters will always attract a crowd. This was going to be beneficial in getting our road cleared as we needed several people to get the task done. I admitted that I had no lumber-jack training but felt confident enough to start cutting limbs if others would haul them away. A couple of youngsters agreed and we began making progress.

Soon after, a second person arrived with a chainsaw and two more volunteers agreed to move debris. The operator of the second chainsaw was more experienced than me but felt that the existing plan should be continued. We worked together for another half-hour when, out of nowhere, a third volunteer arrived with a much larger chainsaw and the confidence to use it.

Who is in charge?

How many of us have been placed in the middle of a project only to find out that nobody is in charge? Or perhaps, discovered that the person in charge is the wrong person for the job? This is often the result of ego or fear that stepping aside will demonstrate weakness. Perhaps our latest arrival was more qualified to move this tree, but we already had people on the scene. Were we really going to let some stranger take over?

A leader must realize that others may have better skills or resources to complete a job and, therefore, be willing to step aside and serve in an alternate form. A leader wants what is best for the team. I’m certain that our original plan would have eventually prevailed, but our new addition suggested that we proceed faster and with the goal of removing the entire tree.

Reallocation of resources

Now that our crew had a competent technician on the scene, it was clear that other parts of our operation were becoming the weak link. Debris was not getting moved out of the way fast enough and three saws being operated in such close proximity was getting scary. I had the least experience with a saw and decided that I would be much more useful working with the others to move the remnants.

A leader should always be willing to “jump in” wherever his people need help. In my professional life, I have had projects in which I bounced from testing a back-out plan to rebooting servers to ordering pizza all in the same shift. Remember, there are no small jobs. The most menial of all tasks will eventually derail an entire plan if it is not dealt with accordingly.


The excitement of our project grew quickly as more people volunteered and we all developed a rhythm. It was surprising to see that someone was beginning to cut the largest portion of the trunk, especially since nobody had talked about it. A loud voice suddenly carried through the air urging that we all stop what we were doing. He pointed out that making such a cut would likely cause the entire tree to roll, possibly causing serious injury to a number of people. How did this happen?

Proper project management should always include continuity plans and safety stops. Each project will have its own unique set of requirements. While a typical information technology project would require access to daily data backups, a utility migration might require an on-site generator be available. Every project should, at minimum, have the plans in place to account for the safety of the people and the products effected.

End result

The fallen tree that caused our largest street gathering in 5-years is now gone. A dozen people spent several hours to get the road open. Everybody was safe, everyone did their part, and nobody’s feelings were hurt. The road crew finished the job the next day and was pleased to find how much work had already been done for them. Mission accomplished.

After action

No project should be filed away without a review of the process. Noting what worked well and what could have been done better is how we learn to make future tasks easier. Many people find relief in discussing the process and reflecting on their roles while others appreciate the opportunity to thank those who helped make it possible. Closure is the final aspect and should never be overlooked for the sake of moving onto the next crisis/project.

We have not had an opportunity to properly close this project, but I am hoping that someone is going to volunteer their grill and some steaks so that we can do so properly!

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