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Will Coronavirus change the way we deliver projects?

"A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner" - English proverb

Just as a rough sea provides challenges, the current environment provides both challenges and opportunities to demonstrate strong project leadership. In this article we look at what it will take to successfully deliver project management in a time of global crisis.   

We may have never seen a time of crisis like this in our working lives, but with decades of experience in projects, it is possible to distil the key factors that drive projects through crisis situations.   

The reality is the underlying disciplines that have delivered projects for decades are as valid today as they have ever been. Projects are, by definition, about bringing control to an unknown environment. If it were a regular, repeatable environment it would be called operations. 

Project management has already delivered massive positive benefits. We have seen major car manufacturers like General Motors and Ford, as well as vacuum cleaner maker Dyson, convert production lines to produce ventilators within 10 days.   

We have watched local distilleries and wineries amongst others, convert their production lines to make hand sanitiser, within days, to address a world shortage (and panic buying). When there wasn’t enough air freight capacity to ship these supplies around the world quickly, we saw major airlines like Air Canada and Lufthansa convert aircraft and processes to quickly distribute critical medical supplies. 

These are all excellent examples of how ‘project management in a crisis’ have quickly delivered.  Each of these examples would have had a very rapidly assembled project team and project plan put together with a common purpose, across multiple ‘divisions’ of existing companies, within timelines we previously thought unachievable.   They were fast, but were they sustainable?

So how do we utilise what we already know to deliver sustainable projects in a changed world?  What is our message for project managers handling the day to day challenges of navigating a project through these troubled waters?  In short, two simple steps; Stay structured and communicate constantly!  

1. Stay structured 

Many of us will have worked in environments where early adoption of Agile was once seen by many as a way of ‘doing projects without all of that annoying paperwork’. What we have learned over time is that the real value of Agile delivery is in keeping the discipline and structures of agile methodology to speed up delivery and stay focussed. It is by keeping the structure within the methodology, any methodology, that delivers the benefit. 

We all know the basic underlying disciplines of delivering projects – Risk and issue management, schedule adherence, stakeholder engagement, budget control etc. It doesn’t matter if your training has been PMI, Prince or Agile, all have a defined structure and a methodology for delivery.   

Take a moment to ask yourself – How has the current environment changed the structure of my project? Which project discipline can I ignore?   

Experience tells us that you can’t ignore any project disciplines.  Each still needs to be managed closely and some will require more attention in this new remote delivery environment. 

  • Risks and Issue have almost certainly changed so its time (if you haven’t already) to revisit your risk registers and continue to bring in new input to reflect the changing situation.   

  • Your project would also be an exception if your schedule, and specifically the resources allocated and available to your project didn’t need a review.  As the work environment continues to evolve so must your schedule. Is it time have those challenging conversations with stakeholders and reset the timeline expectations of the project. 

  • Budgets still need to be forecast, revised and tracked, probably more tightly in a more funding constrained environment. If your schedule, resource mix and/or any other factors have changed, get to know the impact now. 

  • Contingency planning – your risk and issues protocol will identify the majority of likely impactors to your project – Have an understanding of how you would handle each. When the time comes, you may need to tweak the response, but you will have the basis of a plan. 

Of course, Scope, Quality and all the other disciplines will require review and attention to varying degrees. Now is a great time to do a mini project triage to establish what is working and what needs attention. 

So, this is not the time to throw out years of experience and knowledge in project management. The fundamentals are sound, stick with them.  If you have any doubts about your approach to project delivery think about who is available in your support network with the experience to give you a second opinion or just act as a sounding board. 

2. Communicate Constantly - Yes even more than normal

The PMI already recommends that 90% of a project manager’s time is dedicated to communicating

As Program and Project managers we know there is nothing more important to project success than good communication. With the unplanned dispersion of our project teams to remote locations due to the COVID-19 virus, almost every project now faces the challenge to maintain the communication required to deliver the successful programs and projects we are responsible for. 

To understand the challenge, let's look at the proven impact to communication for distributed teams. 

In published studies [1] of the relationship between probability of communication and location, it was found that communication dropped significantly when people were separated by more than 10 metres within the same building. So once your teams are more than 10 meters apart, communication opportunities fall away significantly. Now extrapolate that to working from different locations.

As project professionals we have always understood the power of ‘Information by Osmosis’, or more generically, the ‘water cooler’ conversation. The knowledge that as hard as we try, not every element of the project can be, or will be, able to be fully communicated and received in e-mails and written notifications. We rely on the team to help spread the message.

Furthermore, we know the productivity benefits of the immediate responses. Being able to lean over an office partition and get an answer immediately to complete your task in front of you. With remote teams it’s now a far more time-consuming process to get simple answers from the team. Electronic tools like Slack and Messenger make it easier but still don’t replace the quality of one on one, immediate communication with the chance to clarify misunderstandings.

So with our teams now dispersed, how do we keep these informal communications in place and more importantly keep the project to its quality and timeline goals? Doing nothing is simply NOT an option. We know that moving your project teams to disparate locations and expecting the same result as a co-located workforce will not work. The good news is that many of the tools and techniques we use today will go a long way.

In the short term, a good first step is to increase the amount of time you budget for communication. If you haven’t doubled or tripled the time you commit to structured communications with your team, do it now. 

The PMI already recommend that 90% of a project managers time is dedicated to communicating, so don’t think of it as time you need to spend, its time you need to set up for your teams to share knowledge. You aren’t in every water cooler conversation now and you don’t need to be in every conversation going forward

While no one solution will fix every problem, here are some methods that may assist;

  • While it may seem contrary to productivity, increase the amount of dedicated time that is in the calendar for meetings – Set up additional team conversations. Focus on value of the interaction and finish the meetings once they are no longer productive.

  • Once you finish the ‘structured’ part of any meeting, allow/encourage the team to stay on-line and chat to each other – encourage side conversations to stay online.

  • Use video wherever possible so people have the benefit of being seen as well as heard. Body language and visual cues are priceless.

  • Make a point of staying in regular touch with key project resources and make time to call them one on one to hear their input – even 15 minute one on ones. As Project Managers we need to make sure we don’t lose critical thinking on how to move forward. This is even more important for the ‘quiet but brilliant’ team members who may not put ideas forward in a group scenario. This way critical ideas won’t get lost.

  • Schedule a genuine ‘catch up’ or social session where team members can just chat about what they are working on, in and out of the office. Keeping teams, behaving and working as Teams will be harder the longer they are separated.

  • Make it fun – Do it Friday afternoon with a glass of wine if that’s what you did in the office, Have a funny hat theme. In short, keep it social.

  • Encourage participants to set up smaller video calls and allow people to drop in and out of multiple conversations, like in the office – When do you ever see 50 people in a conversation where only one can speak – It discourages interaction

  • And controversially, take senior managers (or yourself) out of the gathering if necessary to encourage discussion.

  •  And of course stakeholders – They will definitely be feeling out of the loop in this period, so incorporate them in more of the project sessions to reassure them progress is being made.

The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus

Coming back to our original question – Does the impact of Coronavirus change the way we deliver projects?

In short - No.

While the environment today is somewhat different to 500 BC when Heraclitus made that famous observation, in projects, change is our reason for existing, it's always been the constant in what we do and why we need projects and project professionals, to manage the change.

The project disciplines we have practised, refined and perfected over decades are the foundations that apply just as strongly today as they always have. Several will require more focus but the fundamental structures, be they PMP, Prince, Agile or otherwise, will be what gets us as project professionals through this crisis.

Or helps us to get our ducks in a row.

….and if you are looking for support, remember Proton has been delivering professional project services since 1996. If you are looking for support for a Project Assurance Review or access to professional project skills, please get in touch for a tailored solution to meet your needs.

 [1] The Effects of Teams’ Co-location on Project Performance - Marina Mendonça, Natalino Zenuna1, Geilson Loureirob and Claudiano Sales Araujo)

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The team at Proton have been working hard to help our customers navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. The challenges faced by many include changed business priorities, changed workforce dyna