5. Project management in a slow-onset emergency

In theory, slow onset emergencies give us a much longer time frame to plan, hire and organize our work. You should have more time to allocate staff efficiently to tasks and to create accurate budgets and forecasts.

The practice is often different. By the time an emergency is noticed, funding secured and you are working, people may well be dying. You need to move fast, but you do have more scope for using good project management practices.

Team – create a wide project team. Include colleagues from functions like HR, procurement, finance that will be necessary to getting the project done. Schedule weekly project team meetings and stick to them, even if some/many people are not present. The team should still meet if the Project Manager is not there! If there isn’t much to discuss, you won’t lose much time, and you might find out something really important.

Respect your team and their ability to get their work done. They have skills that you will often not have. At the same time, give them very clear guidance on what the expectations of them are. You may need to adjust the project timelines or budget projections if they tell you the expectations cannot be met. You may also need to give them extra support, training or guidance to help them meet the expectations. If you are having difficulty with the work of a particular team member, break down work into smaller parts with shorter timeframes for completion so that both of you can be confident about the timing and quality of the work as it is progressing.

Your role is also to solve problems that your team bring to you. You may need to speak to colleagues in other teams or with senior management to help them with new information, access to resources, or revised timelines. Tackle problems as soon as they come up. You can also delegate solving issues to team members if appropriate, but an important part of being the project manager is to remove obstacles in the way of your team.

If your team raises a potential problem to you (e.g. a vendor might be delayed in delivering food, if the road conditions get worse) then this is a RISK. You need to make a record of it and you may need to take steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening or the impact if it does (e.g. finding alternative vendors with local stocks).

Communication – use more structured, but concise written reports. Provide information to sitreps which allow everyone to get an overview of the whole response. Hold regular meetings of your team (weekly) including all those needed for the project (finance, HR, logistics, procurement). Share information on your project and its progress through all staff meetings, newsletters, chat groups (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook) so that colleagues who aren’t directly involved have a general idea of what’s going on. Print out the latest information on your project (e.g. including objective, timeframe, progess against time, achievements, issues, next steps) and post it somewhere prominent so that others can see it.