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… the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.

When FDR spoke those words as part of his presidential inaugural address in March 1933, it was meant to inspire a nation to recover from the depths of the Great Depression.

But looking at global reactions to the new 2019-nCoV Coronavirus, I wonder if it would have been better stated as the only thing we have to fear is our reactions to fear itself.

This disease, like many before it, will injure and kill many before it is controlled. Economies will take time to recover from its impacts. But it is how we respond to it that will define how successful we are at recovering from it.

Whether it is the willful distribution of misinformation, hiding critical information to save face, latching on to snake oil remedies, or worse, ostracizing or even persecuting others just because of what they look like or where they come from, our reactions to this global crisis will either prolong or curtail the suffering.

So what is the project delivery lesson we can learn from this?

Issues will happen on projects. The magnitude of those issues will vary depending on the level of project complexity and the effectiveness of risk management practices. And sometimes the impacts of project issues can be dire.

But more often it is not the tangible impacts of those issues themselves that we have to be worried about, but rather how our stakeholders will respond to the issues. Acting on their amygdala impulses or using project issues as an opportunity to further personal agendas are unlikely to result in the best possible recovery outcomes.

I’ve witnessed projects which could have recovered fairly easily from an issue get pulled into a death roll by a few “crocodile” stakeholders. Rarely do these stakeholders suffer any personal consequences from their actions as scapegoats are easy to find.

So how do we combat this?

  • Increase transparency into what is known, what is believed and what is still unknown. Separating key information into these three buckets and updating and re-communicating this frequently will help to quell the spread of misinformation.
  • Increase predictability and consistency in our actions. When things are starting to spin out of control, stakeholders will be looking for stability within the chaos. If we are not doing what we say we will do, we will drive these stakeholders into the arms of false prophets.
  • Emphasize ongoing planning over plans. While it is important to develop and communicate recovery plans, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of sticking to those plans when evidence refuting their value emerges. Our own biases will often be our worst enemies so reinforce the importance of radical candor among our trusted advisors.

If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” – Rudyard Kipling

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