On August 29, 2005 hurricane Katrina raced across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana. When it was over, a category 5 storm had breached the levees, flooded eighty percent of the city, killed 1,500 people, and left over 80 billion in damages. It was the costliest natural disaster in US history.
What followed was a project failure of enormous proportions. It failed in planning, it failed in execution and it failed in meeting even the most basic needs of those caught in the middle of this tragic disaster.
While the circumstances surrounding this failure were certainly different from those surrounding more conventional project failures, there is, nonetheless, an opportunity to look at Katrina as a project and to reflect on how lessons from this tragedy could help prevent failures in more conventional projects.
Four project management failures stand out.
• Selective Perception
• Difficult Relationships
Effectively managing any project, especially one responding to an emergency situation, demands an open communication network from top to bottom. But in the Katrina project that network was never created. Instead, a cumbersome, limited, and indirect system was responsible for an information logjam of major proportions. It was reported, for example, that Federal Emergency Management Chief Michael Brown (“You’re doing a great job Brownie”) was unwilling to share information with other agencies and that some information never even got to his command center.
The ability to communicate is really tested when separate organizations must communicate and coordinate their efforts. Consider that at least four organizations, each with their own organization cultures and strong leaders, were involved.
• White House
• Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA)
• Department of Homeland Security DHS)
• Louisiana State officials
• New Orleans Officials.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the communication failure was that it took 24 hours for the White House to confirm that the levees had broken.
Selective perception occurs when decision makers and leaders hear only what they want to hear and ignore everything else. The vulnerability of a city built below sea level and protected by deteriorating levees was known for years. While the probability of a direct hit was small, the consequences of such an event, should it occur, would be disastrous. Perhaps because the event was so unlikely or because there were other demands on limited city, state and federal resources, nothing was done. This is an example of selective perception where certain data is conveniently ignored because it may require action that those in control are unwilling to take.
Louisiana Congressman, Charlie Melancon, testifying before a US House Committee said that e-mails written by the government's emergency response chief Michael Brown, showed a “failure in leadership.” In one email, written two days after the hurricane hit, a FEMA employee in New Orleans, wrote to Brown that "the situation is past critical." He listed problems including many people near death and food and water running out at the Superdome. Melancon said that Brown's entire response was: "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?" The implication was that the email from Melancon to Brown was largely ignored.
What became apparent was that local, state, and federal agencies were tripping over each other for at least three reasons. The first was that their roles were not clearly defined. The second was that roles and responsibilities overlapped, and the third was that more time was spent in protecting one’s turf than in addressing the needs of victims. As a result there was considerable confusion over who was in charge and what they were supposed to do.
Eventually, when the US Coast Guard stepped in and imposed strong top-down control, the delivery of services to the victims improved.
The failure of leadership was so profound that the title of a government report, "A Failure of Interaction," concluded that Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, executed his responsibility late, ineffectively, or not at all.
Lack of leadership set the stage for difficult relations among all parties. Michael Brown was accused by a spokesperson of being "willfully subordinate." Brown testified in the Unites States Senate that he thought talking to Chertoff during the crisis would be a "waste of time." On September 12 Brown resigned, 10 days after President Bush told him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
We need to be careful in generalizing the project failure lessons that can be learned from a once-in-a-hundred-year tragedy, but the magnitude of the failure was so great that it becomes a caricature of what can go wrong in more conventional projects.
• The more constituents involved, the greater will be the communication challenge. Unless managed effectively, far too much time can be devoted to resolving jurisdictional conflicts and not enough time on the real issues. Too many constituents can sabotage a project
• Be careful of selective perception. When it goes unchecked it can be effective in miminizing interuptions, but the consequnces of locking out new data can be disastrous.
• Either clear leadership lines must be established, or a collaborative environment .. similar to what can emerge in high performance teams … must be created and managed. Neither existed in this situation.
• Difficult relationships must be addressed. Once they surface they are unlikely to go away.