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Looking to the future beyond the pandemic – a key role for the project profession

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Eight years ago, the eyes of the world were on the east end of London as the London Olympic games were delivered with such aplomb in front of thousands of spectators and millions of viewers. This was the culmination of meticulous planning and huge creative effort against a hard deadline, with brilliant precision, execution and a supreme volunteering effort all buoyed up by the genuine warmth of public spirit.

 In recent weeks – but for a much less joyous reason – the eyes were once again on east London as the first in a series of Nightingale hospitals – to be replicated around Britain – was delivered at breathtaking speed by an unusual coalition of military and NHS project management expertise (with support from many others). This was one example of the speed and imagination of people to deliver in ways previously unimaginable.

As one former permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis recently wrote in Civil Service World: “All over government, people are being asked to deliver the totally impossible at unimaginable speed.”

Such sentiments can be replicated all across the voluntary and private sectors as well.

Perhaps when this whole dreadful pandemic is concluded, one of the key chapters of the story will be on the often unsung contribution of project professionals, using adaptive and change management skills to deliver a bewildering array of logistical and adaptive emergency projects and activities.

Whether it is within government where, for example, thousands of HMRC officials have been transferred to deliver universal credit, or project management excellence within supermarkets and related supply chain operations across the country, or the innovation we have seen in the health and pharmaceutical sectors to deliver projective materials (PPE), testing kits as well as, looking forward, the key projects to develop and deliver the vaccines so crucial to delivering a pathway out of this pandemic crisis.

All these unsung heroes deserve their praise, even it is not quite so much in the spotlight as the health and care professionals, transport workers and others currently on the frontline to combat this virus.

When the dust is settled, which let us hope will be as soon as safely possible, I believe it will be clear that the successes and failures will show a clear route map back to those organisations that were well organised and had the vision, skills and capacity to adapt at speed against immense pressure and deadlines to deliver. That is to say great project management was at the heart of this success.

But now is the time for others to think and plan ahead for the next stage – which will be about how we get the economy and society back on track as quickly as possible once safe to do so.

Again, project professionals can and must be in the forefront of this great task.

Her Majesty the Queen alluded to the war spirit of ‘we will meet again’ in her inspiring broadcast a few days ago, and there is a parallel here in the planning that took place whilst the war effort was underway. The peace was being planned as war raged – the resultant international co-operation under the Marshall plan helped the successful rebuilding of the world’s economy and civic society in the late ‘40s.

We will need a similar imaginative collective effort to rebuild our economy and our social and mental fabric (the latter should not be forgotten in the economic focus for recovery), and project management must be at the heart of this effort.

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