As the world wrestles with the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth remembering that project professionals are no strangers to disruption.
In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about ‘outliers’, events that fall outside normal expectations. But it’s important to understand that these supposedly rare events aren't actually that rare.
This specific pandemic is, thankfully, an uncommon occurrence – but, collectively, there are many ‘rare’ things happening at all times that impact projects. What is important is how we choose to prepare for and respond to these events.
Approaching the current disruption from this angle reveals a perhaps unexpected glimmer of hope – there are opportunities here for project professionals in terms of implementing best practice and challenging ourselves to build more robust processes for the future.
When an outlier arrives on your radar screen, it’s important to respond early. As soon as the warnings come up, initiate a conversation with the client. Acknowledge that change is on the way. Given this pandemic is a change to the external environment, recognise it as one. Raise a formal project change request, and capture the impact in writing. To work out what this means, ask the team, and get them to talk to you about how they see it and what the impacts might be. You may think you recognise all the possibilities, but ask them, the experts, to talk it through with you. Next make a list of the impacts and invite your team to do the same. Apply elements of the Delphi technique, and review your lists together and iterate. To get the best out of this process, avoid groupthink, give everyone an equal voice and keep the discussion free-ranging. Make your team think hard about how the lockdown can be turned into a challenging but beneficial time.
Recreate those watercooler moments
Take this opportunity to strengthen your ways of working as a team. Ask everyone: do you know how to use all the remote-working IT? Ask for volunteers to come forward and help those who need assistance with video-conferencing, Skype, Microsoft Teams, BT MeetMe etc. If you took the opportunity to test the comms before you needed them, you’ll be in a more comfortable position now. If you didn’t, it’s not a mistake you’ll want to make again! Don’t neglect comms with your client either. Respond positively to them: ‘This is what has happened, we recognise it and this is how we're responding.’ Clients will see this as a positive, engaged reaction where we lead through change. If you're used to working on-site with the client, increase your comms. At first you will be ‘coasting’ on existing comms, but over time you will lose the ‘watercooler’ chats and the intel that naturally flows when walking to get some lunch. Instead, host regular ‘stand-up’ meetings via Skype. Keep them short, just like you would in person, and keep the energy up.
A shock to the system (in a good way)
So what will the legacy of this pandemic be for projects? Treat this event as a positive shock to your ways of working. Use it to scrutinise your team dynamics and strengthen your methods. Being open about this is cathartic. Being pushed out of our comfort zones (eg video calls, for those not used to them) is a great way to lift our performance. I set my team the challenge to ‘do better’ – let’s show how good we are and increase our outputs when we don't have so much travel to do. Let’s turn this to our advantage. Finally, when this has passed, I see these events enabling a better future. We will demand less travel, and flexible working will become more acceptable and widespread, improving our work/life balance.
The technology has been tested, the ways of working developed and now people at all levels of organisations are amenable, as we have shown this works.
Projects of all kinds will benefit, and so will our clients and society as a whole.
Read more on steering projects through complex and ever-changing environments in James’ article on anti-fragility in the Winter 2018 edition of Project
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