The US Incident Command System (ICS) – in Harmony with Project Management?

What do ICS and Project Management have in common? Answer: A lot.

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a planned response to any type of incident including natural disasters, terrorist threats, and large-scale planned events. ICS is a nationally standardized methodology (Canada has a copycat program by a different name) which allows responders to stabilize the situation, save lives, and restore conditions to their new normal.

I couldn’t help but notice a few correlations between Project Management and ICS as I sat in ICS-300, an ICS class. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Emphasis on Communication – Projects require communication for success. A communication plan is a standard part of the Project Management Framework. ICS allows for a Communications Unit within the Logistics Section.
  • Unity of Command – This is the idea that people should only have to answer to one boss. We’ve all seen this happen. Working in conditions with multiple bosses leads to passive-aggressive behavior and complacency. The importance of having clear accountability to one person or objective is huge. As a worker, decide on who your one boss is for the project and ignore the rest. As a leader, make sure that the people directly working for you understand their accountability to you, and delegate below that point as much as possible. Issues with those below the level of people who answer to you are actually issues with the people who answer to you; take it up with them.
  • Structure of ICS Team Addresses Many Portions of Project Management Framework – I’ll start by saying that the Project Manager is not likely the Incident Commander; the Project Manager’s role is likely closest to the Planning Section Chief, with some overlap in many cases to Logistics Section Chief and Liaison Officer (likely others at times). The Project Sponsor would be closer in role to the Incident Commander. A Public Information Officer would be the marketing or public relations division (or similar) in the Project’s parent company. The Operations Section Chief in ICS would be the Team Leader in Project Management; someone to have direct and regular contact with the Team Members – Strike Teams, Task Forces, Single Resources.

There are some minor differences, technical differences in paperwork come to mind. It may be that many attempts to create a formula for quality leadership will result in some resonance with these concepts…

There is a key takeaway for anyone involved in some long-term goal, lofty objective, or complicated project; every one of these ICS positions, or portions of the Project Management Framework, will be required. Problems will arise if portions are missed, or the project could fail. Planning to have every position fulfilled, either by YOU or SOMEONE ELSE, will keep even the craziest projects manageable.