What Training Project Managers (and everyone else) Can Learn from the Japanese Disaster

March 23, 2011

There’s been a lot of commentary about the way the Japanese people have responded to the series of disasters happening there. I think of other societies, including here in the US. In comparison, we’re kinda pathetic. I think back to past disasters, and the looting, chaos, political posturing, blame, near riots, and other forms of ugly human behavior. And as a training professional and project manager, I can’t help but look for parallels and lessons to how we do business. How we conduct ourselves in our day-to-day projects. Here are a few things I came up with…

Be prepared.
Bad things are going to happen. Sometimes really bad things. You don’t know what, where, when, and how. But bad things will happen. The Japanese are super prepared. Children, employees, and citizens in general are well educated on what to do in an earthquake or tsunami. People knew what to do, and this made a huge difference.

Similarly, I know backpackers and other wilderness enthusiasts stress the importance of carrying “the ten essentials” on any backcountry adventure. Comprised of things like a compass, emergency blanket, extra food, and fire starters, these essentials will help ensure survival if you get injured or lost.

We need to do the same at work. On projects and initiatives large and small, we need to be prepared for storms.  We need to have our own 10 essentials for launching into new learning projects and building healthy, functional teams. What will we do if a project suddenly tanks? What if our team is suddenly hit with unexpected departures? What if the kitchen blows up and we are left coffeeless? These things happen.

Capture from a Japanese Earthquake Survival manual

Watch out for the aftershocks.
Large earthquakes can cause a lot of damage. And we know from Japan that when the dust first settles, the danger isn’t necessarily over. Aftershocks, additional quakes, and tsunami can be triggered, sometimes causing more devastation than the original quake itself.

Organizational storms are similar. After a painful project issue hits and the dust seems to settling, waves of resentment resentment can rattle meetings and relationships, jeopardizing projects and even whole organizations. When hit by an unexpected quake at work, don’t assume the damage is over when the vibrations stop. Watch out for tsunami.

Be calm and remember your values.
Like many others, I’m impressed by the calm, kind, self-disciplined manner in which the Japense people as a whole responded. Geeze, how much most of us – and the rest of the world – can learn here. Enough said!

You are no more important than anyone else.
I can’t count how many diva-minded team members and even leaders have sabotaged a project or dammaged team morale by their self-centered, “it’s all about me” behavior. Let’s be honest – we all have had our moments. Can you imagine what that attitude would look like in Japan following the earthquake? Think Katrina!

We can learn a lot about Japan here. To have healthy, well-functioning teams that respond constructively to crises, we need to think in terms of the whole. Don’t be expected to be treated differently. If you do get some special acknowledgement, be grateful. But realize that as special as you may be, in terms of the whole (organization, work team, etc) you are just a cog in the wheel. An important cog, of course, but you’re still a cog! That’s not an insult. It takes a lot of solid, well-built, and trustworthy cogs to keep the wheel turning and the mission moving forward. Drop the ego and get behind the mission. And get in line like everyone else.

A boy waits in a line in front of a gas station in Kamaishi, northern Japan Monday, March 14, 2011 following Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Asahi Shimbun, Naoko Kawamura)

It’s no one’s fault.
When projects don’t go how we want them to, it’s really easy to look for blame. Try instead to get the big picture. Assume positive intent and help each other learn.  Don’t recruit others to join your blame-storming game. instead, recruit or join others in finding solutions to the situation. And keep in mind that sometimes there are no real solutions. Sometimes all you can do is reach out and show that you care. The dust will settle and  new opportunities will arise.