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Adapting and responding to difficult conditions in projects: perspectives from a veteran

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Veterans of the Armed Forces will attest to the fact that serving in the military is ideal preparation to help build the key skills required to successfully tackle the daily challenges of a project manager.    

Experience from operations enables us to be agile enough to adapt to difficult situations, lead well under pressure and exploit emerging opportunities. These strengths are all ideal for a profession which is inundated with unpredictable conditions and one that requires good judgement to avoid potential risks.    

Within the Royal Marines, the Commando values of excellence, integrity, self-discipline and humility lend themselves to high-performing teams who are the first to understand, the first to adapt and the first to excel under any conditions. 

Whilst considering these strengths and values, and within the context of project management, the challenge for myself was how best to relate my previous experiences with the types of complex situations that I face today.   

Furthermore, and as in my previous profession, an important factor of ensuring a successful outcome is having the ability to identify what can potentially go wrong in order to positively react to emerging situations when it matters the most.  

What are the key attributes to adapting and responding well to difficult conditions? 

Building situational awareness by collaborating with on-site technical experts and experienced employees can help project managers focus on effective and timely decision making. In turn this increases the chances of maintaining momentum – particularly on complex projects. Collaboration can also act as a good way to make employees feel more involved and valued with the ongoing changes.   

Creating a vision of what good looks like through early stakeholder engagement, can help towards understanding the overall strategic intent and reduce any uncertainty surrounding the end-state of the project.   

Building a flexible project framework that contains enough agility to absorb unknown future risks and/or the absence of detailed information can help towards navigating through volatile situations when they inevitably arise. 

Providing clarity, direction and clear instructions by communicating effectively at all levels can massively reduce the chance of misinterpretation and eliminate ambiguity.  

Remember that a good plan today is always better than a perfect plan tomorrow!  

How can we identify the different types of conditions that pose a high risk to projects? 

The US military introduced the term VUCA to reflect the general conditions and situations associated with a multilateral world following the end of the Cold War in 1989. Within the context of project management, and when used alongside other tools, VUCA helps us identify future conditions that may pose a high risk to projects of all sizes.  

Volatility – When a situation is volatile it is likely to change rapidly and unpredictably; especially for the worse.  

Russia’s war against Ukraine is currently causing unpredictable delays in the supply of building materials and a rapid increase in overall costs is having a huge impact on project budgets. Because of this, contracting companies have no choice but to build in unprecedented amounts of financial risk into new projects, which in turn is hindering their chances of progressing through the tender stages, and creating a lose-lose situation for clients and contractors alike. 

Uncertainty – Due to the unique and transient nature of projects, there are many aspects which can cause uncertainty.  

Uncertainty is common in remediation type projects when, for example, legacy utilities are not shown on the existing drawings within the pre-construction information. Situations like this can cause lengthy delays and often lead to the submission of expensive compensation events when the offending ‘unknown services’ are eventually discovered.   

Additionally, there is the potential for unexpected changes such as new client expectations, changes in legislation and workers going on strike over pay and conditions which are all aspects that can create substantial challenges for leaders at all levels.  

If left unaddressed uncertainty will detract from the focus of the project itself and can potentially result in worker disengagement.   

Complexity – Projects that contain intricate or complicated processes rely heavily on effective communication and good decision making to help provide the essential details required to build and maintain momentum.  

Complex projects include factors such as multiple stakeholder engagement, the use of ground-breaking technology and challenging operational conditions.      

A good case in point is the Dreadnought submarine programme, which sits at the very highest level of complexity due to the secretive nature of the technology involved and the importance of its on-time introduction. Furthermore, maintaining the UK’s national security relies heavily on the timely replacement of the current Trident missile Vanguard-class submarines. This places huge constraints on the non-negotiable aspects of the scope, i.e. quality and time, which by deduction has seen estimated costs of the project soar. 

Ambiguity – The absence of detailed information on a project often leads to imprecision and misinterpretation, however the rigidity that comes from expecting full and perfect knowledge can be counter-productive and can often cause delay.  

When dealing with third parties (i.e. landowners, road authorities, utility companies and local councils), detailed information can be hard to come by and from experience, getting a timely response is a rarity which can make future planning difficult. 

Having the flexibility to switch between activities within a project is key to ensuring that we can navigate through and respond well to situations like this.  This can be achieved by working in an agile way; by building in contingency plans and by having an effective risk management strategy that will stand the test of time. 

95% of the way to finding the right solution is to fully understand the problem in the first place 

Change is natural, risks will never go away and the unknown should never be feared. A high proportion of projects fail because of unrealistic planning and a lack of forward thinking. To ensure success the goal is to get out of the weeds and create an environment which is conducive to achieving optimum efficiency.  

Furthermore, we need to learn more about the context we are operating in on a continual basis and prioritise the building of our situational awareness. This way we can effectively navigate around emerging risks and take advantage of new opportunities.  

So, as project managers we must strive to be the first to understand, the first to adapt and the first to react well so that we, our projects and our team can excel… 

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