Advances in Project Management Series: Managing the Urgent and Unexpected


By Stephen Wearne, PhD


Keith White-Hunt, DSc

United Kingdom

Urgent work may be required unexpectedly by any organization, for instance to take advantage of a business opportunity or for protection against a sudden physical or business threat or to restore a severely damaged asset. So what is different from normal if a project is urgent and unexpected and so has to be started without prior study of its scope or how to deliver it? How is managing any urgent and unexpected project different from managing normal work? What are the lessons and ideas which may help?

To answer these questions we drew on twelve cases of urgent unexpected projects ranging from the launch of the Freeview television system in the United Kingdom to the sifting and removal of the New York World Trade Center pile of debris following the “9/11” terrorist attack.1 The urgent unexpected projects we examined all achieved their sponsor’s objectives. They do not necessarily represent every possible surprise which may require immediate action. They did provide an opportunity to consider what was different in managing them compared to normal practice.

An emergency is defined as a sudden event requiring immediate action where there is thought to be a threat to life or property. None of the cases examined were emergencies in that sense, but four of them consisted of managing restoration and recovery work after emergencies. Four consisted of managing preventative work to forestall threatened emergencies. Two were new business opportunities. In their effects all the cases were the same in being triggered by a surprise event which demanded resources for urgent action.

If a project is unexpected and also urgent the result can be a crisis, what the dictionary defines as ‘a turning-point in progress’ or ‘a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent’ (Oxford English Dictionary) and medics say ‘when a change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death’. The word ‘crisis’ implies that the result will be bad, or at least undesired. This is not necessarily true. Two of the cases examined show that unexpected events can be opportunities. The crisis then can be in applying resources quickly enough.

Every project tends to seem unique to the individuals and organizations involved in it. An urgent and unexpected project may seem to those involved in it to be more unique than others.


To read entire article (click here)

Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK. This month’s authors are also the authors of the book: Managing the Urgent and Unexpected: Twelve Case Studies and a Commentary, published in 2014 by Gower. For information about the book, click here. Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.

About the Authors

pmwj29-dec2014-Wearne-AUTHOR1 WEARNEStephen Wearne, PhD flag-uk

United Kingdom

Stephen Wearne, PhD is Senior Research Fellow, Project Management Research and Resources Group, University of Manchester. Stephen worked previously in the engineering and project management of large water power and nuclear power projects in the UK, South America and Japan. He is an Emeritus Professor of Technological Management, University of Bradford; Founder Chairman of the UK Engineering Project Management Forum. His awards include: Brennan Medal, Institution of Chemical Engineers; Garth Watson Medal, Institution of Civil Engineers; Sir Monty Finniston award, UK Association for Project Management.

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United Kingdom

Professor Keith White-Hunt has held senior management positions in academia, business and government in the Arab Gulf, UK/EU, USA, and Asia-Pacific Region. This experience includes: President and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at universities in the Arab Gulf, as well as holding the personal Chair in Management endowed by the Ruler of one of the GCC States; Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of some of the World’s largest AACSB and AMBA accredited university Business Schools; Director of Technology Transfer & Commercial Development at one of the World’s ‘Top 100’ research universities; COO of a ‘Top 100 Index’ Hang Seng listed multinational company; Director for Business Development at a Silicon Valley based leading international consultancy; and Deputy CEO & President, North American Operations of one of the largest regional Economic Development Corporations in the UK. He has Board experience with multiple companies and has been an advisor to international government bodies, NGOs, universities and quality assurance agencies.