Managing in Times of Crisis



By John Cable, Director

Project Management Center for Excellence
A. James Clark School of Engineering
University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland, USA

In our 2021 Virtual Project Management Symposium, Nikola Ivanov, who serves as Director of Operations at the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory, presented a captivating session on “Managing in the Time of Crisis.” We felt his presentation was exceptional, so we decided to share his insights with you.

In times of a crisis, some managers shine, and others do not. Perhaps you are faced with a major, public problem, or it could be something internal and more contained. It could be something specific to your organization, or something with global impact, like the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Nikola, one thing is for sure: Crises are intense, stressful and complex.  There is no single “right” way to resolve them, and there is no easy way to recover.

His presentation explored different ways in which effective management during a crisis was the differentiator between a good project manager and a great one, while also raising questions about why a great project manager would allow a crisis to occur in the first place.

Let’s first be clear about the difference between risk management and crisis management. Project managers know that “project risk” is the exposure of stakeholders to the consequences of variations in outcome. You can plan proactively for risks because you can predict fairly accurately what they are and develop plans to mitigate them.

Ivanov described a “crisis” as an unforeseen, potentially devastating event or series of events. They’re fundamentally different because with risks, you can be proactive. But, in a crisis, you are generally reactive, and your ability to make good choices given the options can be very limited.

He indicated that a crisis should be rare, and if you’re having them daily, weekly, or monthly, then perhaps you’re not having a crisis—it might be more like a systemic organizational issue that is not sustainable.  Or perhaps, your worst risk has materialized, you had a risk you didn’t account for and that’s the one that materialized, or all your worst risks have materialized at once. If you’re operating in an environment with more risk than your business can sustain, there might be a serious flaw in your overall strategy.

Ivanov places crises in project management in three categories:

  • Short-term, in which a crisis has an immediate project impact or possibly jeopardizes a phase of a project.
  • Mid-term, which can be a crisis that impacts a larger project or multiple projects; or consecutive failed projects that points to a larger, systemic issue that is permeating the organization.
  • Long-term crisis, as we are currently seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, is a completely unforeseen situation that is lingering longer than expected, and is causing entire business sectors to die out. This kind of crisis is externally imposed and has created organizational chaos that is either destroying the business or has caused it to pivot its focus at the brink of destruction in order to remain viable.

Certainly, project managers don’t want this happening often. You can work to avoid risks by developing strategic plans and position the organization in a way that helps reduce uncertainties. But, as heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”

So, what are the key ideas to create effective crisis management when the worst happens?


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How to cite this article: Cable, J. (2021). Managing in the Time of Crisis; Commentary, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue X, October. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/pmwj110-Oct2021-Cable-managing-in-times-of-crisis.pdf

 About the Author

John Cable

Director, Project Management Center for Excellence
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA


 John Cable is Director of the Project Management Center for Excellence in the A.James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, where he is also a professor and teacher of several graduate courses in project management. His program at the University of Maryland offers masters and PhD level programs focused on project management. With more than 1,300 seats filled annually with students from many countries, including more than 40 PhD students, the program is the largest graduate program in project management at a major university in the United States.

John Cable served in the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy in 1980, where he was involved with developing energy standards for buildings, methods for measuring energy consumption, and managing primary research in energy conservation.  As an architect and builder, Mr. Cable founded and led John Cable Associates in 1984, a design build firm. In 1999 he was recruited by the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering to create and manage a graduate program in project management. In his role as founder and director of the Project Management Center for Excellence at Maryland, the program has grown to offer an undergraduate minor, master’s degrees, and a doctoral program. Information about the Project Management Center for Project Management at the University of Maryland can be found at www.pm.umd.edu.

In 2002, PMI formed the Global Accreditation Center for Project Management Educational Programs (GAC).  Mr. Cable was appointed to that inaugural board where he served as vice chair.  In 2006, he was elected as chairman, a role he held through 2012.  As Chair of the PMI GAC, John led the accreditation of 86 project management educational programs at 40 institutions in 15 countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the Asia Pacific Region. John was awarded PMI’s 2012 Distinguished Contribution Award for his leadership at the GAC.  He can be contacted at jcable@umd.edu.

To view other works by John Cable, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/john-cable/



  1. […] This article appeared in PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue IX, October 2021. […]