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A project manifesto for our post-COVID world

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In January, during lockdown, I attended an accreditation fair. The exhibition hall was laid out with all the top providers of project practitioner skills and assessment. There was a large APM stand, and I joined one group of qubot avatars at a café table for a chat before I had to give my keynote on the main stage.

Having spoken to over 1,000 companies, the remote working guru Chris Herd says that about 30 per cent are planning to get rid of their offices entirely and go ‘remote first’. If he is correct, we’re going to need better ways than videoconferences and document sharing to keep us engaged. We’re going to need to be able to lead and not just coordinate projects. Jeremy Dalton, in his new book Reality Check, suggests that avatar-based events and work are the future.

Five possible futures

I’m only partially sure of this. In mid 2020, I wrote an article on the five possible futures we faced and speculated on which would emerge and how it would affect you:

  1. Back to normal, where we are all dressed head-to-toe in stylish, lightweight, spaceman-style suits, or vaccinated like Swiss cheese, and go back to BC (before COVID).
  2. Partially locked, where we yo-yo between old freedoms and new restrictions.
  3. Accidental rut, where the habits built up in periods of lockdown persist, and your zoombie eyes keep swivelling.
  4. Another phoenix, where your organisation (that has been rubbish at innovation) now tries to reinvent itself for new customers and markets.
  5. The meld, the one I believe will be our real future – a mixture of all the above in no organised fashion. 

Either way, our past is now as unfamiliar as our future. As you’ll know, when faced with a completely new challenge, the safest way to succeed is not to set goals about something you don’t understand but instead to take a step review and learn. You need to be systematic and disciplined. In our new post-COVID world, having a system for success will trump any audacious but ungrounded goals you have.

The journey is just beginning

You responded so well to the crisis. It is easy to believe our new status quo is also our best future. It is not! What must you now unlearn in order to be able to progress? Comfortable pyjama bottoms on Teams calls need to be replaced with proactive engagement of key stakeholders. Document sharing needs to be replaced with synchronous collaborative workshops.

Learn to transform

Change is not enough; to reinvent you must transform. Your BC project management and best practice need upgrading. BC projects were delivered through a lot of planning and review. That meant a project manager could build a career by gaining a reputation for putting out fires. Now we must learn in advance from what has not yet happened and avoid the bad bits. The system I use is one where project stakeholders meet periodically to dream about what could happen in the future. They begin with the problems we know affect project types and focus on zero defects.

Relax and find a guide

There are two ways to reinvent – one is to copy everyone else, find the trendy buzzwords and push a bunch of ideas for working better and see what works. The safer route is to find the most demanding stakeholder and use them as a guide to the future. Reinvent to meet their outrageous demands. Often, the rest of the world will want what this person demands six months after they have spelled it out, so you will be ahead.

You want technology on your side

Technology can enhance and empower people, or it can enslave people, delete their sense of purpose and crush their dreams. One training organisation I spoke with was proud of how the syllabus content was constrained, the process was systematised and the training tutors assessed. I asked how, with the lack of face-to-face classrooms, they were delivering the nuance and emotional connection needed to grow superb managers and not technicians? They answered that they used e-learning and webinars. I replied, “Can’t those just be recorded and AI used to create a database of responses? How is the technology empowering the tutors? Enhancing the learners?” I was their most demanding stakeholder.

If 2020 was our ‘crisis’, then 2021 marks our first year AD. It is the year our energy and creativity emerge from lockdown to build, knowing that the best is yet to come. I hope you have begun already.

A version of this blog appears in the spring 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members. Find out more here.

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