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Emerging from crisis management mode and looking to the future

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Critical lessons from APM’s ‘Crisis Talks’ series of podcasts

In the spring, APM recognised the heightened importance of communicating with members to offer their support and to hear members’ stories. In response, it launched the ‘Crisis Talks’ series of podcasts. Each episode interviews a project manager in a different field to get their perspective on the pandemic and post-pandemic world of projects.

Listen now: The final episode in the Crisis Talks series features Joanne Rowland, director of HMRC’s COVID-19 Response Unit, who oversaw delivery of the government’s flagship Job Retention Scheme, also known as the furlough scheme, in only four weeks.

Here are some of their key insights for the future:
Difficult situations prove just how adaptable people can be
“There’s been a big push in the construction industry over the past few years to be more innovative and embrace tech, but it’s been a slow burner,” said Andrew Higson, a project manager at Balvac, part of the Balfour Beatty Group. “[The pandemic] really has forced a lot of people’s hands. It’s encouraged managers to have trust and confidence in their employees that they can work from home efficiently and that things will still happen.”

Hannah Gledhill, senior project manager at Hotel Chocolat, also found that significant, rapid change to the business context brought out her colleagues’ adaptability. “We didn’t do video calls before, and now we do everything on video calls. We didn’t put a huge amount of emphasis on risk in the product development before. Now our teams who work on packaging have weekly team meetings to go through a risk matrix.”

Paul Hilton is a programme director at Mott MacDonald, overseeing the delivery of 13 projects across nine cities in six countries in South-East Asia. His programme team works closely with local authorities across several countries. “One of the major developments,” he explained, “is that the authorities have rapidly become agile. They started the year not being able to answer a telephone call, but they’ve very quickly caught up.”

A chance to set projects up differently
“Lots has come from this crisis – some of it not surprising, things we’ve actually known for years but now need to get on with,” says Joanna Rowland, director of HMRC’s COVID-19 Response Unit, and a Fellow of APM.

She sees opportunities to get delivery advice up-front and work more collaboratively.

“We are undertaking lessons learned, but I think this will be a bit of a tipping point for us to set up our projects slightly differently – in the way we work agile and the way we set up the teams.”

The role of the project leader is about control, pace and coordination, she says, but the experts should do the delivery.

“Sometimes the way we set up our programmes means there are a lot of people standing between decision-maker and deliverer, and it can slow the process down, so I think we need leaner, more streamlined programme structures – ones that are genuinely collaborative and cross-cut the organisational structure.”

The way we monitor projects has evolved
With the change in working practices, many project managers are trying out different ways of tracking projects.

“We’ve created a virtual project control room through Trello, an online app that is essentially a place to log lists of activities,” Gledhill explained. “We encourage individuals to go into the Trello board to update their actions.”

Because everyone is in their own homes, she said, it’s a little harder to control conversations. In response, she told The APM Podcast, “we’re now focusing a lot on reporting the status of every project to board level and the teams actually working on the project. We’re trying to put a bit more governance around this funnel of ideas filtering into a live project.”

New ways of communicating have their pros and cons – just like the old ways
“Many things can be done over comms tools – but you wouldn’t want to be fired over Skype,” said Hilton. “It’s also difficult to have a contract negotiation. Or if you’re trying to have a discussion where you’re trying to build a trust framework with someone, that can be more strained if you can’t have that physical connection.”

However, there are positives to the new emphasis on Teams as a core work tool, Hilton added. “Previously, we had meetings where some team members would be sat together and other people would be at the end of a phone. Those latter people would feel a little bit ‘second class’, whereas now they’re on a level playing feel. That means the meetings are richer and more valuable to people further out.”

And the benefits to meeting culture aren’t just limited to greater interaction with geographically dispersed teams. “The efficiency we now get from our meetings is greater,” Gledhill said. “The ability to jump from one meeting to another – while not always a good thing – means we’re moving at such a pace now that I don’t know how we’ll keep this up if we move back to the office and everyone has to physically walk from one room to another.”

Get this right and we could have a happier workforce
“From a business perspective, not having to pay for offices brings benefits,” said Higson, “such as people being able to work more flexibly and manage their work-life balance better. I can see a lot of these [changes] sticking.”

He cautioned that home-workers need to get the balance right between time spent indoors and time outside – and also ensuring they don’t neglect family time if they’re working in a home with children or partners present.

“Find a way of introducing some quality family time during the day. Block out a couple of hours. If that means doing a bit more after the children have gone to bed, so be it.”

For project professionals, working from home versus in a busy office “might feel a bit like the difference between working for a large company and working for yourself, where you perhaps don’t have that sounding board so regularly available to help and guide you, or sense-check what you’re doing.” It is imperative, therefore, that remote workforces find ways to create those valuable connections in new and innovative ways.

Confidence for the future
The last few months of crisis have re-emphasised the importance of project management. Making change happen, and embracing its opportunities, is core to the work of the project manager. Many have stepped up to the plate and are emerging from this crisis with a renewed sense of conviction.

“Coming through a situation that has been traumatic not just for me and the industry, but for the whole world, means I’m more relaxed about dealing with uncertainty now,” said Higson. “I have confidence in my own abilities to manage through a crisis.”

For Gledhill, “[the pandemic] has really highlighted the importance of project management in terms of gaining some control in a crisis situation. I’ve felt like our resource has been really valued through this and we’ve added a skill set so that other teams could step up.”

The APM Podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and at


Image: Shutterstock/ eamesBot


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