by Doug DeCarlo, Principal
The Doug DeCarlo Group
Author of eXtreme Project Management:
Using Leadership, Principles and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility

Katrina: A Lesson in eXtreme Project Management

As did thousands of others, I sat fixated on the TV hour after hour eye witnessing in real time the tragic events of Katrina. As the devastation and suffering unfolded, my emotional state went from disbelief to shock and outrage.

I watched helplessly as cameras and reporters focused on the tens of thousands who had taken refuge in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. As hours turned into days, there was little relief for those housed in the two structures. On-the-scene reporters and cameras gave voice to victim's pleas only to have their cries fall on deaf ears. People were being abandoned in plain view as the world watched. Were those in charge blind? Heartless? I doubt it.

How come we could take pictures and conduct interviews, yet provide no meaningful short-term relief to people at the Convention Center and Superdome? Who's calling the shots? Who's determining the priorities? Were they confused? Lacking in leadership and clarity of roles? Under-prepared and taken by surprise at the unimagined magnitude of the event?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. Time will tell. But in the meantime, I do know that:
  • Immediate response to the occupants in the Superdome and Convention Center was woefully inadequate.

  • Serving the immediate needs of a highly concentrated and vulnerable population (upwards of 25,000 at the two facilities) should have been a top priority and it wasn't.
To help channel my anger and frustration, and to at least begin to feel less than helpless, I asked myself, "Given the apparent need to effectively mobilize and respond to the plight of those in the Superdome and Convention Center, how could eXtreme Project Management have helped, if at all?"

I came up with two answers:
  • Recognize the real need
  • Respond appropriately
In case you're wondering if the disaster relief program qualifies as an extreme project, here's the definition:

An eXtreme project is a complex, high-speed, self-correcting venture during which people interact in search of a desirable result under conditions of high uncertainty, high change and high stress. (From eXtreme Project Management: Using Leadership, Principles and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility)

Recognize the Real Need
Two of the most useful practices of eXtreme Project Management are that of establishing a Mission Statement for a program or project, and prioritizing the Win Conditions of each.

At the Program level, the Mission Statement (which I call the 3-Sentence Project Skinny), might have read this like this.
  1. The National Disaster Relief Team will ensure the safety and well being of the victims of hurricane Katrina.

  2. This Program will be considered complete when all the victims have been taken to safety and are able to return to their homes and resume their personal and work lives.

  3. This Program supports the Federal Government's objective to provide disaster relief for all those living within the United States and its Territories.

The 7 Win Conditions are generic to all extreme projects and should be applied to the overall program as well as to each individual project within the program. (Rob Thomsett uses a device called Sliders to calibrate success. Each Success Slider can be set to on or off or graduated somewhere in between. See Thomsett's book, Radical Project Management.)

Below are the 7 Win Conditions which have I tailored to the Katrina Disaster Relief Program. At any one time, only one of the Win Conditions can be designated a "Must meet" and only one can be labeled "Optimize." The remaining 5 are to be met at an agreed upon acceptable level.

If the National Disaster Relief Team had used the 7 Win Conditions to prioritize their Mission for Katrina victims, I'd speculate that they might have prioritized Stakeholder Satisfaction as the one "Must meet" Win Condition and Schedule as the one condition to "Optimize."

Win Conditions
- Katrina Disaster Relief Program -

Win Condition Priority Description1
Stakeholder Satisfaction Must meet Lives are saved. Victims able to resume personal and work lives
Schedule Optimize Respond quickly
Scope Acceptable Provide medical attention, food, shelter, law and order, public health, reconstruction, housing, job assistance.
Quality Acceptable Good enough to get the job done
Resources Acceptable Use public and private funding
ROI Acceptable Ensure resources are used effectively
Team Satisfaction Acceptable Ensure rescue and relief teams have adequate resources and needed support
1In practice, a 4th column entitled "Metrics" is added to define how each Win Condition will be measured.

Here's my reasoning for how I prioritized the Win Conditions: Everything would have been in vain if Stakeholder Satisfaction were not met at some predefined measure of success. Put another way, if all other conditions were met and Stakeholder Satisfaction was not, the project would be considered as having woefully missed the mark. (Here, I'm using stakeholders to refer to the primary stakeholders—namely the victims—and not necessarily to all the secondary stakeholders including their extended families, the government, rescue and relief teams, the general public, the media, etc.)

What about optimizing Scope, Quality, Resources, ROI or Team Satisfaction? Optimizing any one these conditions wouldn't matter much if they weren't met in a timely way. And that could lead to the outcome of having delivered the best, but too late to save substantial numbers of people.

Now I ask, what conditions were Katrina officials optimizing for those in the Convention Center and Superdome? The TV coverage tells us it wasn't Schedule. I remember boiling in my seat watching in disbelief as well-intentioned government officials day after day held press conferences announcing how much help was on the way. And in real time, as they were speaking, behind them, footage was being run of dead bodies and desperate souls being neglected at the Convention Center and Superdome. Why wasn't there an immediate response team put in place to at least airdrop food, water and basic medical supplies into the two facilities? Because the actions of those in charge appeared to be directed at optimizing Scope or Resources at the expense of Schedule.

My choice would be to pick Schedule as the one Win Condition to optimize, and then make sure everything else was accomplished at an acceptable level. What's important here is that the 7 Win Conditions can provide a useful framework for life and death decision-making.

In sum, recognizing the real need, in my opinion, would have been to:
  • Place Stakeholder Satisfaction as a "Must Meet" condition (which they thought they were doing).
  • Optimize Schedule (which they didn't).
  • Keep Resources, Scope, Quality, ROI, and Team Satisfaction within acceptable tolerances. (In absence of Schedule, they appeared to be optimizing Scope and/or Quality.)
Respond Appropriately
Had Schedule been deemed the one Win Condition to be optimized, this might have led to the establishment of an immediate response team to ensure that this Condition be met.

eXtreme Project Management would have called for the immediate response team to quickly agree on its own Project Skinny, Scope of Work and set of Win Conditions. That may have looked something like this:

Project Skinny
- Immediate Response Team -

  1. The Immediate Response Team (IRT) will ensure the initial safety and wellbeing of those inhabiting the Superdome and Convention Center.

  2. Our project will be considered complete when the Secondary Relief Team (SRT) is fully deployed and can take over from where we leave off.

  3. Our project supports the Katrina Disaster Relief Program's objective to save lives.

Activities In and Out of Scope
- Immediate Response Team -
In Scope
(Work to be done by the Immediate Response Team)
Out of Scope
(Work to be done by other teams)
Maintain law and order Provide extended relief by picking up where the IRT leaves off
Ensure physical security Arrange to transport evacuees to other shelters
Administer medications and care for injured Arrange for long term care
Maintain a satisfactory level of public health Re-connect the inhabitants with their loved ones
Evacuate high risk victims Return evacuees to their homes
Provide initial food and water  
Provide psychological counseling  
Establish communication services  
Update the Secondary Response Team and the media  

Project Win Conditions
- Immediate Response Team -
Win Condition Priority Description Metrics

Must meet Provide short term relief
  • Feet on the ground w/in 2 hours of all clear
  • Administer to all of the most needy within first 8 hours
Stakeholder Satisfaction (Primary stakeholders) Optimize Victims are satisfied with the immediate response Feedback and observation indicates that at least 75% of victims are being adequately served
Scope Acceptable Satisfy the immediate needs of the Superdome and Convention Center inhabitants for:
  • Law and order
  • Physical safety
  • Adequate food and water
  • Adequate medical attention and care for injured
  • Public health
  • Psychological counseling
  • Evacuation of high risk victims
  • Timely and accurate information
  • Panic and crime are contained
  • Victims are sheltered from physical hazards
  • The most needy have food and water w/in 2 hours
  • Those with life threatening injuries and illnesses are administered to within 8 hours. MASH unit fielded.
  • Major threats are avoided
  • Individual and group sessions are taking place
  • High risk victims are evacuated within 2 to 8 hours
  • Communications systems in place w/in 1 hour
Quality Acceptable Adequacy of services provided Barely sufficient to get job done
Resources Acceptable People, equipment, services, funds Minimum of 50 1st responders fully equipped on the ground for every 1000 victims
ROI Acceptable Resources wisely invested A post-event audit indicates funds produced the desired results
Team Satisfaction Acceptable Team feels a sense of accomplishment Ongoing feedback and post event debriefing indicates team members felt they were adequately supported in getting the job done

My purpose in writing this article has not been to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking or to point fingers. Time will tell who knew what, when they knew it and how they responded. What we do know is that there was a serious breakdown. My fondest hope in writing this article is to get across the message that, while eXtreme Project Management in particular and Project Management in general are not intended to provide panacea-like answers, they do serve as an invaluable framework and set of tools for strategic decision-making.

eXtremely yours,

Doug DeCarlo

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