The Power's Out! (No Kidding.)
Welcome to the mid-Atlantic, and as I write this, some of my neighbors are entering Day 6 without any electricity. It's been a model object lesson for anyone interested in risk management, project management or any kind of customer management. We have witnessed the best and worst of humanity out here, and there are some lessons that we all need to collectively learn if we're going to survive this kind of event in the future.
What You Can Learn from the Great East Coast Outage
- When something major happens, someone will already have a name for it (and act like you should have known).
- If you're affected by a major risk, triage is everything.
- It's not about the resources, it's about the network.
- Sometimes, the dinosaurs look pretty darned smart.
Can You Say Derecho?
Perhaps the simplest (and yet most profound) learning moment from the major storms that took out five million customers from Illinois to the East Coast was when the first meteorologist used the term derecho. A word that won't even pass spellcheck has become the official buzzword of the year. It's the term for a storm that blasts through an inland mass at hurricane speeds, shredding the local flora in its path. The Washington Post's "Capital Weather Gang" waited less than a week to begin posing the question as to whether or not weather forecasters should have been more efficient in their efforts to predict this risk. It matters little that no one had heard of a derecho two weeks before. Now it's time to assign blame.
On our projects, we need to be mindful of these kinds of situations. When someone starts pointing fingers based on our ability to foresee the unforeseeable, it's time to push back and say, "Next time there's a risk of this magnitude, you're right! But don't start blaming me for trying to fix something I'd never heard of prior to last week!" Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley was in classic "blamethrower" mode with his epic quote: "Nobody will have their boot further up Pepco's backside than I will to make sure we get there." While no one in this region is in love with the power company, the realists are at least cognizant that this is a first-time incident, and the utilities merit a modest amount of slack.
I was duly impressed by the triage efforts of the power company and laud them for their risk avoidance efforts. They assigned two "watchers" to sit in a truck and mind the store near a local snapped utility pole. The watchers had a simple job. Keep folks away from downed power lines until the crews could get there. The watchers sat for two days, putting up with some degree of ridicule. No matter. They were evidence of some masterful triage. One of the power crew members who followed them to the site praised their role: "They're there to make sure nobody dies while we're working on bigger outages." I loved that phrase. Nobody dies. That's good triage. And it's where we should be on our projects.
There are inevitably those situations where we look like we're not moving fast enough or in the right direction. But sometimes, until the right team can be there, the best thing that we can do is to ensure that nobody dies. That's a lofty and laudable goal. I had one neighbor wonder aloud if these two "jokers" (his word choice) couldn't at least start clearing brush around the downed tree and transformer. I imagine they didn't have the information or the right skill set or the tools to do so. And you know what happened courtesy of their just sitting and watching? Nobody died. Good call.
Florida? You're Here from Florida?
The crew that worked my neighborhood had come up from the Pensacola area. Florida. They had driven through the night to find themselves climbing a pole in Frederick, Maryland. And when they got here, the "watchers" went away and left the work in more professional hands. In Maryland, we had crews from Canada, Florida, and all over the East and Northeast.
Outside resources don't come cheap, but for the one-off, never-happened-before risks, they're the dream team. The key is to have the networks in place long before the event. Should the local power companies have enough full-time, dedicated staff to handle the next derecho? I hope not. I couldn't afford my power if they did. In our projects, we should be identifying vendors, support staff, outstanding consultants and others to fill the voids when we're not up to the task. And we need to get management to understand that we need to be braced to pay them. They may not be cheap, but events like this don't happen that often. It's worth it on a short-term investment.
You Stick Your Finger in the Hole and Turn the Dial
It sometimes pays to hang on to Dark Age technology. Many of my neighbors couldn't dial out immediately after the storms, because their phones require power. One neighbor saw my rotary dial phone and laughed -- until I pointed out that I could still send and receive calls on my land line. You want backup technology? My backup calendar hangs on a wall behind me in dry-erase marker.
There are certain aspects of our lives that we have surrendered to technology. But if there's something you cannot live without, think about how you would get by without the technology to support it. Odds are that there's an old world answer. For our projects, we should be on the alert for how we might look like the smartest person in the room by having an antiquated failsafe that keeps us from being completely unprepared.
In a matter of months, much of this experience may well be forgotten. And like the risks and challenges on our projects, we may relegate them to back-burner status until or unless they happen again. But we should use the intervening time to not only build our understanding of the latest new evil to befall us, but to build the triage plans, networks, and the non-technology that may ultimately come to our rescue. Next time.
Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP, EVP is a member of the board of directors of ProjectConnections.com. He is the author of five project management texts. His sixth, The Risk Management Memory Jogger (Goal/QPC), is slated for release late this year. He welcomes your insights and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org