End of the old ways

Written by: Alexander Garrett Posted: 06/07/2020

BL68_ProjMan illoHospitals created in days, thousands of employees relocated overnight… Many will wonder why we can’t always be this efficient. So has the Covid-19 pandemic been the make or break of project management?

All across the world, extraordinary feats have been achieved over the past few months. In Wuhan in China, a 1,000-bed hospital was built from scratch in just eight days. In the UK, the string of temporary Nightingale hospitals providing thousands of critical care beds across the country – created from existing exhibition centres – showed similar endeavour.

Dozens of the world’s companies re-engineered their production lines overnight to make PPE equipment, while drugs companies switched their resources to developing antibody tests for Covid-19.

Retailers introduced social distancing throughout their stores, organisations of every type found ways for their people to work from home, and universities, parliaments and television stations worked out how to operate ‘virtually’. 

In normal times, all of these changes would typically have been the subject of a major project, involving months or even years of planning, scoping, tendering and implementation.

But with the coronavirus pandemic creating an unprecedented urgency, they were carried out in a fraction of that time, turning conventional wisdom about project management on its head. 

Few among the general public would consider project managers key workers – their work is typically behind the scenes – but the value of the project management profession has been thrust into the spotlight during the Covid-19 crisis. 

In fact, striking questions are beginning to be asked about how projects will be managed in future.

For those in the profession, fortunes have been mixed during the lockdown. “In many cases, project management and change management have gone from being seen as a discretionary expenditure, with lots of businesses letting people go, to suddenly ‘we desperately need project managers to implement all this change that’s resulted from Covid-19’,” says Leonie McCrann, CEO of Jersey-based change and project management specialist Marbral Advisory.

“On a lot of the projects now being implemented, there’s a burning platform,” she adds – where a business needs to completely rethink and reinvent itself to survive. 

At the other end of the scale are organisations that have simply decided to close down everything and ride out the storm. 

Many of those involved in the emergency response have found themselves busier than at any time in their working lives, with seven-day 70-hour weeks not uncommon. That means one group is at risk of burnout, while other colleagues have been laid off or furloughed. 

Call to action

At fiduciary and corporate services provider Ocorian, the impending lockdown created an urgent need to get the entire organisation working from home in next to no time – and a change of approach to project management.

“We effectively moved from 20 offices worldwide to 1,200 in two weeks,” says Head of Communications Lydia Chambers. And this came immediately after the firm had completed its merger with Estera. 

Stuart Geddes, Ocorian’s Group Head of IT, adds: “We had a remote access capability for all our staff, but we never envisaged a requirement on this scale.”

The challenge was to scale up the company’s remote working architecture, which involved adding new servers at a time when everyone else was trying to buy this equipment too. 

“We knew the end game was to have everyone working effectively, so the deliverables were clear. It was a question of how we would do it,” says Geddes. “We formed a small four-person crisis team and had calls every day where we could identify what needed doing, make the necessary decisions and take action.”

Meanwhile, a separate integration team ploughed ahead with the major two-year project to integrate Ocorian and Estera, making extensive use of technology to foster collaborative working and take the place of the extensive travel and face-to-face contact that would have been a key part of that project.

Changing priorities

While it’s unlikely that project management will look completely different after coronavirus, few doubt that the immediate response the pandemic called for will be influential in shaping the way things are done in future. Chambers, who previously worked in project management, believes there will be a stronger focus on delivering the most important ‘user needs’.

“Too often with projects, people get caught up in all the competing priorities that this department or that department says it wants,” she explains. 

“What has driven success over the past couple of months has been everyone getting behind that one big audacious goal. If you can take that and apply it to projects more widely, then that’s what will pay dividends.”

Geddes believes that will lead to a more iterative approach to delivering change. “Traditional project plans in our industry work out what the end state needs to be, then we come up with a huge plan of delivery, which is usually delivered to end-users either as a ‘big bang’ or in a couple of phases over two or three months.

“What we saw during the crisis was the ability for us to deliver solutions that really benefit the business, overnight. But we’re not talking about the fully featured solutions that you’d get over three months – we’re really picking out the key benefits, which is forcing us to prioritise.”

In future, he says, projects will be delivered faster, but the scope will be narrower. A slimmed-down project will focus on the core, critical benefits, followed up by a process of continual review and update that will deliver more of the ‘nice to have’ benefits.

If, as expected, some degree of social distancing continues in the foreseeable future, and remote working remains a reality for many, that will have implications for project management – increased use of collaborative tools, stronger protocols for communication and a greater focus on data centralisation, for example.

Raising the bar

The remarkable exploits that have taken place in response to Covid-19 are bound to heighten expectations at board level that projects can be delivered much faster, and to raise the bar on what is deemed possible. 

It’s also possible that the approvals process will be simplified in many cases, to reduce one of the key obstacles that hold up many projects.

However, these generally welcome developments will have to be balanced against increased risks. McCrann points out: “All governance starts to be slimmed down and that has consequences – what is delivered might not have the quality that was expected or could be over-budget, and the wellbeing of people currently working very long hours isn’t sustainable.”

Agility and flexibility will be the watchwords of the profession going forward. Graeme Watson was Project Director at AECOM for the NHS Louisa Jordan – a £43m 1,000-bed capacity hospital set up in Glasgow’s SEC in three weeks.

He told the Association for Project Management (APM): “If I could try and bring one element from this project to future projects, it would be building a team where everyone is so solutions-focused and flexible. 

“Any time someone thought they could help, they flagged it up. I don’t think anyone let anything personal get in the way of the common goal.”

Organisations are widely expected to become more project-based in future. The coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for project management to raise its profile and will already have done much to improve people’s perception of a not particularly well understood organisational activity.

As the APM’s Head of External Affairs David Thomson puts it: “Restarting projects in a post-pandemic world will demand different behaviours and skills from leaders, including project professionals. 

“We hope that the outcomes will show a clear map back to those organisations that were well organised and have the vision, skills and capacity to adapt at speed, against immense pressure and deadlines, to deliver.”


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