Every project management team should have a plan in place to deal with unexpected incidents. These are different from project emergencies. Instead, they’re events that affect the team (and have the potential to impact the project downstream). The nature of the incidents may vary—the abrupt departure of key personnel, regulatory action affecting the organization that puts the project’s success in jeopardy, a public labor dispute that throws the project team into the media spotlight—but the basic skeleton of every response plan will be similar. Below are a few key ingredients to include in your team’s incident response recipe.

Identify the core resolution team

Though the nature of each incident will influence the particulars of the response plan, it’s worthwhile assigning a core team of people who will be responsible for implementing the plan and carrying out the initial assessment. They can then identify other individuals to manage further actions if necessary. To facilitate delegation when things are hectic, consider limiting the core team to managers and above, with the exception of any support personnel who would normally handle administrative functions.

Plan for communications

Never assume any incident, no matter how small it seems to your team, won’t become a topic of conversation or inquiry. Your incident response plan should include a communications component that can be adapted to suit both small, internal issues as well as highly visible events that may gain the attention of external media outlets, industry groups, or regulators.

Identify a single person (plus one alternate, in case the primary person is out of town or unavailable) to act as the spokesperson for the Project Team. This eliminates confusion and should help to avoid multiple, possibly conflicting messages coming from the group. If the organization has a central media person who normally handles public relations for the company, this person will coordinate with them to ensure the team’s information is relayed accurately.

Align emergency resources outside your Project Team

It’s prudent to assemble a list of partners outside the project management team who can be leveraged if necessary. There may be only a few circumstances where your Project Team may need to call on external help, but scrambling for assistance is the last thing you’ll want to be doing if something goes wrong.

Support options that may prove helpful include an external media relations contact in your region (if the organization doesn’t have internally), outside legal counsel familiar with your industry, an experienced project management consultancy who can step in if senior-level staff have moved on, and a staffing agency that specializes in project management consulting professionals.

Consider also including a representative of the organization’s leadership team—typically an executive but a board member is sometimes appropriate—to ensure management is kept in the loop and to help secure emergency funding when necessary.

Make a good assessment a priority

This sounds like a natural step but it’s still wise to include it as a formal phase of any incident response plan. The urge to move immediately into “react” mode needs to be resisted, to give the team a chance to properly determine precisely what happened and devise the best strategy to deal with the event. Identifying how to move most effectively into the resolve phase of the plan will take place during this assessment.

Prepare for the post-incident review

Just as your team conducts a post-mortem review of every project, the same should be done for incidents that arise. The reasons are the same—you’ll be better prepared not just to respond to the next unexpected event, you may also uncover nuggets of information that help you avoid similar problems in the future.

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