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Vaccine distribution is an enormous challenge, but project professionals can deliver

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Project professionals have never been under greater international scrutiny. Over the past 12 months, they have supported the scientific and healthcare communities in multiple complex assignments as they raced to increase hospital capacity and reduce drug discovery, manufacturing and licensing timescales.

Delivery in these sectors is being challenged at the highest level of government, with the prime minister and various Cabinet members visiting high-profile construction sites in recent months. Government departments, NHS trusts and private-sector firms have been working closely with project professionals to deliver new or temporary clinical accommodation, coronavirus testing facilities, track-and-trace software and more – all to extremely tight timeframes, budgets and constraints.

Perhaps most challenging has been the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, requiring large-scale clinical trials; efficacy, safety and regulatory reviews; and rapid modifications and upgrades to infrastructure and facilities. These projects and programmes will become even more critical in 2021, and project professionals are stepping up to provide expert support to facilitate successful roll-out.

A monumental challenge

With regulatory approval for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine now granted, pharmaceutical and biotech companies remain in the hot seat, accountable for working with the healthcare sector to facilitate roll-out to over 66 million people. Even in normal times, this would be an enormous challenge, requiring large-scale management, planning, coordination, procurement, equipment and manufacture. But to deliver all this while our health service continues to treat patients through the busy winter flu season, while supply chains are highly constrained, and while we continue to produce other vital lifesaving medicines – that is a monumental challenge.

Vaccine distribution will involve a complex logistical process, with rigorous controls and safeguarding, including prioritisation, stock management, temperature control and patient safety. The scale and scope of the challenge are yet to be fully established. It may require new infrastructure for storage and safe nationwide distribution.

These are nationally important projects and programmes, so what lessons have we learnt, and how can we continually improve to meet the challenges of 2021?

Two tips for continued success

The construction and manufacturing sectors have learnt many valuable project management lessons this year. These can be summarised into two key areas: (i) collaboration and (ii) the need for a flexible and innovative approach.

To meet the challenges ahead, project professionals must ensure that the four pillars of successful collaboration – working together, staying together, adding value and innovation – are fully embedded. Complex stakeholder groups and a rapidly changing external environment mean that highly collaborative working practices are vital. Such practices ensure that changing requirements can be quickly recognised, defined, communicated and embedded.

Project teams should, wherever possible, investigate, facilitate and implement knowledge transfer from other sectors. For example, collaborative working across the aerospace and automotive industries has, at record pace, aided in the upscaling of manufacturing capability in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life science sectors.

Flexibility and innovation, meanwhile, continue to be crucial. Among other challenges, fluid financial controls and high levels of external public scrutiny have demanded that project professionals innovate and adapt. For example, within procurement, design and construction, highly strategic sourcing has maximised the buying advantage and enabled a swift response to supply and disruption risks. Continued use of innovative design and procurement solutions will be vital in upscaling vaccine manufacture.

On the front foot

Throughout 2020, we have been challenged to use the most modern, innovative methods of construction. Temporary modular and off-site manufacturing facilities have provided a bridge between short-term demand and the lag once new permanent facilities become operational. These have been successfully employed in the healthcare sector, to facilitate delivery of Nightingale hospitals, and in the biotech sector, for example the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) project in Harwell.

In 2021, project professionals should continue to encourage clients to look for innovative solutions, such as repurposing vacant retail and commercial office space for healthcare use, or creating ‘pop-up’ factories for temporary or offsite vaccine manufacture.

Project professionals will also need to continue providing flexible resource management. They must match, acquire and deploy the best available and best qualified level of resources on the market to respond to changing programme demands. Project professionals should consistently review the skills, experience and availability levels of personnel against the forthcoming workload. To do this, they should use resource-smoothing and proactively identify new resources from the supply chain and the wider market.

A year like no other

In short, in 2021, projects will need to:

  • remain resilient to sickness and self-isolation;
  • upscale quickly to meet project or programme needs in a fast-changing environment;
  • respond to peaks and troughs in workload without compromising on quality; and
  • invest in appropriate software that embraces agile and remote working, instant reporting, and live and interactive data and analytics.

I believe in 2020 we have learnt that, against enormous odds, project professionals can still deliver. What would have been seen as unattainable in 2019 has proved possible in 2020. With collaboration, flexibility and an innovative approach to delivery, I believe we are ready to step up to any new national challenge that 2021 throws at us.

Check out this episode of the APM Podcast, where we look back on 2020 and reflect on some key project management lessons from a turbulent nine months.


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